ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico high schools improved, but elementary schools regressed this year.
Those were two of the findings from the state's grading of its 839 public and charter schools. Gov. Susana Martinez announced the results Thursday, saying she considered the high school grades encouraging, and the elementary ratings evidence that unprepared third-graders had been passed along.
State Sen. Howie Morales, a chief critic of the Martinez administration's grading formula, said a new statistical variation accounted for the jump in high school grades.
Morales, D-Silver City, said elementary grades continue to be based almost entirely on standardized test scores and are not a good measurement of a school's overall performance.
"I celebrate all the schools that saw their grades improve, but we should remember that there also are schools with lower grades that have higher proficiency ratings for student performance. That is one of the problems with this grading model," Morales said.
Early this year, Morales got a bill through the Legislature that would have broadened the factors that figure into school grades. Martinez vetoed it, sticking instead with the formula developed by her Public Education Department. Much of it is based on standardized tests.
The number of A-rated schools more than doubled from last year, from 40 to 82. Most A schools -- 70 of them -- were high schools.
Not a single high school got an F this year, compared to six a year ago.
In all, the number of A and B schools this year exceeded the number of D and F schools.
Still, a total of 85 schools received F's, up from 64 in 2012. Schools getting a D numbered 218, down from 250.
Martinez said the greatest weaknesses in academic performance were in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. She said this was because kids who were not proficient readers in third grade had been promoted.
Martinez, for three legislative sessions, has pushed unsuccessfully for a bill that would allow mass retentions of third-graders who are not reading at grade level. A majority of the Democrat-controlled Legislature has said holding back kids en masse would lead to more dropouts, causing more harm than good.
Democratic Sen. Bill Soules, a teacher in Las Cruces, said no scientific evidence shows a correlation between retaining large blocs of kids and improving graduation rates.
State law now allows parents to overrule a school staff one time on retaining their child. After that, school staffs can force students to repeat a grade if they believe an extra year in school would help a child academically.
Martinez said her goal was not to retain kids, but to get extra help to those who need it. Even so, she said it was not compassionate to promote third-graders who are not reading at the appropriate level. She said she considered third grade a landmark, as students who are not proficient readers then will falter in higher grades.
Morales, who was in a legislative committee hearing most of Thursday, said he had not had time to pore over all the school grading data.
But, he said, school grades were misleading, built on a system more generous to high schools than to elementary schools.
Morales said only the performance of high school juniors accounts for a high school's grade. But this year, he said, the Public Education Department tweaked the grading system by a adding a comparison of how those being assessed did as sophomores.
Had a similar statistical snapshot been added at the elementary level, grades would have spiked there as well, he said.
Martinez said she was happy that New Mexico now grades its schools for two reasons.
One is that it allows the state to target which schools need the most help. The second factor, she said, is greater accuracy.
Schools previously were rated through the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under that system, only three of New Mexico's 839 schools would have received a passing grade this year, Martinez said. That system was rigid and inaccurate, she said.
New Mexico was one of 11 states that sought and received a waiver from the No Child Left Behind rating system.
Martinez announced school grades at the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, a charter school for kids in grades 6 to 12. The school got an A for the second year in succession.
Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science this year was rated by The Washington Post as the 47th most-challenging school in the country. Its students must be dual-enrolled in a college while completing their high school diploma.
State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, is the school's attorney. He said he liked its practice of evaluating teachers four times a year, including assessments by people from outside the school.
Martinez seized on that endorsement. She tried but failed last year to establish merit pay for top-rated teachers, an idea that critics said would be based on politics, not classroom excellence.
Milan Simonich is the Santa Fe bureau chief for Texas-New Mexico Newspapers. He can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.