District has show improvement of 12 percentage points in reading since 2015

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FARMINGTON — New Mexico's new secretary of education had high praise for the Farmington Municipal School District's performance on an annual state-mandated exam, extolling the district's growth in scores since testing in math and reading began in 2015.

State Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski described the district's showing on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, exam in 2017 as "incredibly encouraging" and said Farmington had established itself as one of the highest-performing districts in the state not just in terms of the improvement in its scores, but also in overall proficiency.

2016: County schools see minor improvements on PARCC

Compared to the scores it posted when the PARCC test was first administered to state students in 2015, Farmington has seen its proficiency rate — that is, the percentage of students who score at Level 4 or Level 5 on the test — increase by approximately 12 percentage points in reading and approximately 9 percentage points in math.

"This kind of double-digit growth is incredibly rare among top 10 (in enrollment) districts," said Ruszkowski, who assumed the secretary's role in June when Secretary Hanna Skandera stepped down.

Farmington Superintendent Gene Schmidt was pleased with those figures, explaining that the bar of excellence has been raised across the district, and standards will continue to be raised.

"As a community, we need to be energetic, we need to be excited, but we need to (look ahead) and say, 'How can we take that next step?'" he said.

More: Larger New Mexico high schools continue to struggle on PARCC

Ruszkowski and Schmidt pointed to the performance of Heights Middle School as a bright spot, as the school showed impressive numbers across the board on math and reading. Ruszkowski said the school's students had improved 14 percentage points in math since 2015 and 16 percentage points in reading.

Over the three years the PARCC exam has been given, Farmington has improved its overall proficiency rate in reading from approximately 28 percent to approximately 40 percent. Ruszkowski noted that showing has vaulted the district to second in the state, trailing only Rio Rancho among large districts.

While those growth figures were exciting, they were tempered by the fact that school districts across the state, including those in San Juan County, still have a long way to go to push overall student proficiency past the 50 percent mark — something that various officials interviewed for this story acknowledged.

Bloomfield School District Superintendent Kim Mizell, for instance, found a lot to be encouraged about in the performance of her students even though the district's overall proficiency numbers continue to lag.

"I want to say we have made progress and growth with groups of students," she said. "The challenge in Bloomfield is improving on the proficiency rate."

A great many Bloomfield students improved from Level 2 to Level 3 this year, she noted, leaving them just shy of the Level 4 that would lead them to be counted as proficient. She fears some observers will only examine Bloomfield's overall proficiency and assume the district is not making substantial progress when she believes it is.

"We're seeing the growth and movement, but we're not yet seeing the proficiency," she said.

Mizell was especially happy with the showing the district's junior high students made, but she was dismayed at the district's mediocre scores on the algebra 2 test and said she didn't believe they were indicative of the level at which her students are actually performing in that discipline.

More: New Mexico student reading scores up, math stagnant

A high percentage of Bloomfield students struggle with English fluency, she said, and she noted the PARCC test can be particularly challenging for those students.

Central Consolidated School District Superintendent Colleen Bowman also acknowledged how far her district has to go to reach proficiency, but she said the new figures had a lot of positive news for her students.

"We're seeing that there are a lot of good things happening," she said.

Bowman pointed to a number of new initiatives they have undertaken to improve student instruction, including the establishment of reading and math task forces charged with improving student performance in those areas. She said those groups were brought together in April and now include the efforts of dozens of people.

"We understand PARCC scores are only one measurement of our students’ academic proficiency in math and (reading)," a statement issued by the district said. "Students also need multiple ways to access meaningful educational experiences so we have set out to create motivating opportunities for choice. For our secondary students, this includes opportunities to partner with large corporations for technical training and internships as well as opportunities for students to pursue college degrees while still in high school."

CCSD also has put together a cultural assistance team to help aid its 89 percent Native American student population, Bowman said, and she the work that group does will be fully implemented this fall.

Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter did not respond to a phone call for comment from The Daily Times.

Ruszkowski said Farmington's success should serve as an example to other districts in the state, adding that those numbers illustrate that teachers and principals have established a partnership through such programs as Principals Pursuing Excellence and Teachers Pursuing Excellence.

"Farmington in the year or two ahead could become a district that a lot of other districts want to come and visit," he said. "That should be a real point of pride for them. And all the credit goes to the teachers and principals in the buildings."

Schmidt attributed some of that success to the strategic plan adopted by the school board two years ago after a process that sought community input.

"The community wanted to raise student proficiency, and we've done that," he said.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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