SANTA FE — T.J. Parks, the school superintendent in Hobbs, said Thursday that seven of his students just dropped out of high school in a panic about the future.
He said they decided to pursue a GED because they feared they could not meet newly enforced state graduation requirements.
Another Hobbs High School student, 17-year-old Sergio Torres, testified before the Legislature's education committee, saying he might not graduate either, even though he had already completed some college-level courses,
Parks said Sergio was a good and earnest student, but he did not pass a standardized math test, putting his future in doubt. Sergio said he would take the test again rather than quit to pursue a GED.
Crit Caton, the superintendent in Artesia, told legislators that 60 of his high school seniors were in danger of not graduating. And Santa Fe's superintendent, Joel Boyd, said his district would exercise its power of local control to protect more than 40 percent of its high school seniors who might not meet one of the state requirements, which he described as a moving target.
"It will no longer be an ever-changing game for kids every step of the way," Boyd said.
Paul Aguilar, a deputy secretary of the state Public Education Department, said all the complaints and confusion came as a surprise to him and others in the agency.
Aguilar said the heightened graduation standards were authorized by rule in 2008. Their implementation was delayed in 2011, but the standards take effect with the class that will graduate next spring.
Aguilar said he had not heard of Hobbs' students dropping out until the testimony was offered Thursday. He said this was an overreaction, and that district should work with the Public Education Department to determine if these students can still be on a path to graduate next spring.
"They need to talk to us," Aguilar said in an interview after the hearing. "All these districts have applied for waivers on students' graduation in the past, and that can be done now."
He said the state would not water down standards, but students could graduate from high school on time if their districts offered proof of their scholastic competence.
Aguilar said he was puzzled by complaints that a series of new directives from the Public Education Department had muddied students' understanding of what they needed to accomplish in order to graduate.
He said there had been few directives from the state, but one on physical education requirements was sent out this week. It may have caused a misunderstanding, Aguilar said.
Parks said memos on state requirements had gone out sporadically throughout the year. The effect was that students found themselves on the cusp of not meeting newly authorized state standards, he said.
Parks said 120 Hobbs High students were prepping for state-mandated tests so they could meet graduation requirements. The school's class schedule had been thrown out of balance to accommodate the necessary cramming for these exams, Parks said in an interview. Hobbs High has about 2,300 students in grades nine through 12.
Leighann Lenti, another state deputy secretary of education, said higher expectations were necessary because too many kids have received a high school diploma without being proficient academically.
She said the state spent $27 million last year on remedial programs at colleges because students could not handle the work. A higher bar is in New Mexico's best interest, she told lawmakers.