SANTA FE — The four scariest words in any school may be "teaching to the test."
At Gallup High, with an enrollment of about 1,100, teachers say they spent the first nine weeks of the school year reviewing material to prepare students for state-mandated standardized tests. November is approaching, but teachers say only now can they launch regular course work that should have started the first week of school.
"We're being bombarded with tests," one staff member said in an interview.
Gallup High employees said they feared retaliation by the state Public Education Department if they attached their names to their criticisms.
So state Sen. George Munoz, who has a child at Gallup High School, has taken up their cause.
Angered by what he considers the education department's heavy-handed mandates, Munoz wants the agency and its appointed leader, Hanna Skandera, to be evaluated through a system established by a legislative education committee.
Munoz, D-Gallup, said under Skandera and Gov. Susana Martinez's administration, his hometown high school has been forced into a chaotic start because testing threw the curriculum out of balance and dampened intellectual curiosity.
"You don't have time to learn jack or to dissect a frog," Munoz said in an interview.Martinez's press secretary declined comment on Munoz's criticisms of Skandera's agency, referring questions to the education department itself.
Larry Behrens, a spokesman for Skandera, said complaints about testing were overblown.
"With the exception of 10th-grade students taking the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment, state-mandated testing has not changed at the high school level in more than five years," Behrens said.
But teachers said the number of standardized tests and the importance of them as a measuring stick has escalated markedly since Martinez became governor and put Skandera in charge of the state's 830 public schools.
One Gallup administrator said that, because student performance on standardized tests now accounts for part of teacher evaluations, the system has become much more time consuming.
Skandera should "walk the talk," a Gallup High administrator said.
"If you're going to hold teachers accountable for the grades students get on these tests, she should be similarly evaluated," the administrator said.
Skandera might complain that the one group already responsible for evaluating her has failed to do so.
Appointed by Martinez in January 2011 to head the public school system, Skandera still has not received a vote from the state Senate that would confirm her as cabinet secretary of public education or remove her from office.
Ten hours of Senate hearings were devoted to Skandera last winter. But Sen. Linda Lopez, the Albuquerque Democrat who chairs the committee that handles confirmations of cabinet nominees, declined to allow a vote on Skandera's confirmation.
Left in limbo by Lopez's Rules Committee, Skandera remained in office with the title of secretary-designate of public education. But she and Martinez have dropped the word "designate" from Skandera's title. It is a protest over Skandera's treatment in the Senate.
Behrens said Munoz's criticisms of Skandera were unfair because it would be impossible for a school to devote nine weeks to state-ordered tests.
"Students spend about 1,100 hours in classrooms. Of this, about eight or nine hours are used for the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment, amounting to about 0.7 percent of the time. Interim assessments, which are not required, are substantially shorter and may bring this total up to 1 percent of the time," Behrens said.
But Gallup High staff members said end-of-course assessments and the need to prepare students for standardized tests that they must pass to graduate meant nine weeks had to be devoted to the process.
They say that Skandera, who was never a classroom teacher or a principal, has no sense of how her directives strangle learning.
Behrens agreed that testing is now more important than ever, but he said that was a good change.
He pointed out that the state's high school graduation rate improved by 7 percentage points in one year, to 70 percent, He said this was attributable to higher standards and greater expectations.
"The state of New Mexico now requires high school students to demonstrate they are on grade level before graduation -- a no-social-promotion bill for graduation, if you will," Behrens said.
He said more help for younger students also had lifted third-grade reading scores by 3 percent.
Asked if Skandera opposes being evaluated under Munoz's plan, Behrens said: "We are happy to be held accountable for student achievement."
As for Skandera receiving a confirmation vote from the Senate, that may not occur next year either.
Legislators in 2014 have a 30-day session in which the state budget will be their centerpiece issue.
Lopez, a candidate for governor, could revive Skandera's hearing and enable the full 42-member Senate to vote on her confirmation or rejection. Otherwise, Skandera's candidacy could simply drag on without a vote, meaning she would be in office for a full four-year term without the Senate ever acting on her nomination.