Education secretary celebrates 'A' schools, rewards teachers during southern NM visit
LAS CRUCES – During a visit to Santa Teresa and Las Cruces on Friday morning, New Mexico Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski presented "Excellence in Teaching" awards to two local teachers and celebrated schools receiving "A" grades from the Public Education Department.
He also rallied students to prepare for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests next spring, which determine New Mexico's national ranking by the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.
The secretary's first stop was Santa Teresa Middle School in the Gadsden Independent School District, where he surprised seventh-grade language arts teacher Maria Cordova with a $5,000 check. District spokesman Luis Villalobos said Cordova, a 36-year educator, is in her sixth year at Santa Teresa Middle School.
Later that morning, Ruszkowski appeared for a multi-school assembly at Monte Vista Elementary School in Las Cruces, celebrating five "A" schools in the Las Cruces district: Arrowhead Park Early College High School, César E. Chávez Elementary, Desert Hills Elementary, White Sands Elementary, and Monte Vista Elementary.
Following the assembly, Ruszkowski surprised another teacher with a $5,000 check, dropping in to visit Monte Vista fifth-grade teacher Robbi Berry during class.
$5 million for the awards was allocated in the state budget signed by Gov. Susana Martinez in March.
'I don't believe in F schools'
When school grades were released in August, Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Greg Ewing expressed skepticism over school grades, telling the Sun-News, "We don’t fully understand how the state’s value-added model plays into the overall calculation of school grades ... it’s also difficult for schools to know what they need to do in order to improve them."
On Friday, students from each school honored took the microphone to suggest what they think made their school "an 'A' school," mostly paying tribute to the efforts of their teachers.
Monte Vista fifth-grader Emmery Whiteaker summed it up: "We work as hard as we can — we never 'opt out,'" an apparent reference to "opting out" out of annual PARCC exams which are factored into schools' grades.
At Friday's event, Las Cruces Board of Education member (and former teacher) Maria Flores joined in the celebrations but also addressed a comment about school grades to district officials and Ruszkowski.
"I don't believe in 'F' schools, because I've seen the devastation that that can cause the school community," Flores said. She also addressed social factors that affect student achievement, saying, "There are uninvited guests that come into our schools. One is poverty, the second one is insecurity, and the last one ... is insufficient funding."
Ruszkowski defends assessments
Campaign-style signs bearing the legend "#NAEP2019" were distributed to children at the event who were encouraged to wave them and cheer.
The PED seeks to boost awareness of the federal assessment, for which representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students in each state are tested in math and reading.
"Our national ranking is determined by the NAEP," Ruszkowski said, calling the exam "game day for New Mexico students." Citing statewide gains in proficiency in math and reading since 2015, the secretary attributed improved performance to higher academic standards and tougher assessments.
"As we continue to raise the bar across our public education system, our students are rising to the challenge," the PED said in a statement.
In 2017, New Mexico fourth-graders selected for NAEP scored 27 percent at or above proficiency in math and 25 percent in reading. Eighth-graders scored 20 percent in math and 24 percent in reading, according to data provided by PED. New Mexico's rankings were below national averages in all four categories.
"Every school in New Mexico has to embrace data," Ruszkowski told reporters after the event. "They have to embrace measurement. They have to embrace assessment. We can't keep sending our kids to school every single day and not know how they're doing."
Linking performance on assessments to parental engagement, improved school resources, and ultimately to economic competitiveness, Ruszkowski said, "It's also an issue of justice. It isn't fair for a kid, just because they're born in a particular ZIP code or particular community, to have access to a lower quality assessment or lower quality standards."
Addressing concerns about instruction time spent on standardized tests, Ruszkowski pointed to 15 days of instruction added to school calendars, reduced testing and shortening of some assessments. He also reiterated PED's promise to make PARCC data available to schools in May instead of late summer.
"You have to reduce time on assessment and you need to have high-quality annual assessments," Ruszkowski said. "It's not one or the other."
School grades raised after review
The Las Cruces Public Schools announced that three schools had their grades revised upward by PED after a district-requested review. In the review process, Camino Real Middle School received a B, Picacho Middle School received a C, and Vista Middle School received a C. All three schools moved up one grade.