School saw significant improvement on its math scores last year

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FARMINGTON — A surge in performance on state testing by math students has allowed Mesa Alta Junior High School in Bloomfield to become the first school in San Juan County to be removed from oversight by the New Mexico Public Education Department.

The move resulted from the school's 2017-18 scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests administered to public school students throughout the state. According to a PED press release, Mesa Alta had landed on the list requiring PED oversight by scoring among the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools based on the state's system of school support and accountability. That initial list of Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) schools was released in December 2017.

Kevin Summers, the Bloomfield School District's director of preK-12 curriculum and instruction, said Mesa Alta students saw little improvement in their language arts scores on the PARCC test, but the improvement among eighth-grade math and algebra I students was marked.

Only 3.8 percent of eighth-grade math students were proficient on the 2016-17 test, but that number improved to 9.3 percent on the 2017-18 test.

The scores were even higher for algebra I students, as 20.4 scored as proficient in 2016-17, but 61.1 were proficient in 2017-18.

Bloomfield Superintendent Dr. Kim Mizell said she was not expecting such a sharp improvement, though she welcomed the news.

More: PARCC scores show improvement for county schools

Summers had a slightly different reaction. He noted that Mesa Alta students, teachers and staff members had done a lot of good work and demonstrated a lot of grit to dig themselves out of an academic hole. But he said the biggest surprise to him was the fact that the news about the school's improvement hadn't come out earlier.

"This is based off last year's assessment data," he said.

Summers said it was likely the PED's transition to new leadership — Karen Trujillo was named secretary by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham after the latter took office in January — contributed to the delay in announcing the schools that had been removed from the list.

State officials say the 27 schools across New Mexico that have been removed from PED oversight will retain the CSI designation through the end of the 2020-21 school year. At that point, the education department will identify a new group of CSI schools.

Additionally, the existing list of CSI schools will be evaluated each year to determine if any of them have improved their performance enough to be removed from PED oversight.

Summers said a lot of time and energy has been spent by students and teachers to shore up Mesa Alta's proficiency on the tests. He said those efforts will not be abandoned just because of the advancements the school has made.

"We're not in the clear," he said. " … But we are making progress in doing right by the students in our community."

Summers believes much of the credit for the gains in math scores by Mesa Alta students can be attributed to the Teach to One: Math program that was instituted at the school last year. He described it as essentially a math intervention support system in which a tailored curriculum is built for each student based on her or his needs. Only two other schools in the state are using Teach to One, he said.

More: Mesa Alta adds tech to math in grant-funded pilot program

According to The Daily Times archives, the program ditches traditional lectures, focusing on individualized and interactive learning in one-on-one and group settings. The pilot program has one more year to run at the school.

Already, the program is showing signs of yielding positive results for students who have moved on to Bloomfield High School. Summers said he has heard from math teachers there that this year's freshman class — many of whose members were students last year at Mesa Alta, when Teach-to-One was implemented — features some of their highest-performing students in a long time.

He described the program as a pipeline model that potentially could improve proficiency levels at Bloomfield High School through a ripple effect. With that thought in mind, Summers is anxious to see this year's PARCC scores.

"It's very promising," he said. "I'm excited to see how we shake out this year with regard to this process."

Already, the high school's staff and administration has worked hard to align the curriculum and implement data-driven instruction, he said, and that resulted in some significant gains in last year's PARCC scores not just in math, but in language arts.

Proficiency among algebra I students at the school increased by 5.4 percent from 2016-17 to 2017-18, according to figures Summers provided, and proficiency improved by 3 percent among algebra II students. Level 9 language arts students saw their proficiency improve by 12.7 percent, and level 11 language arts students saw theirs increase by 2.4 percent.

Those gains offset small losses among geometry students (-2 percent) and level 10 language arts students (-2.6 percent).

Summers believes it will take four to seven years for the district to realize the full potential of the changes, but he is encouraged by what he has seen so far.

The district still has one other school on the PED oversight list, Charlie Y. Brown Alternative High School, but that school wound up on the list because of its inadequate graduation rate, not its academic performance, Wheeler pointed out.

"So the intervention we undertook at Charlie Y. Brown is going to look fundamentally different from what we did at Mesa Alta," he said.

Nevertheless, the successful efforts to elevate the performance of students at Mesa Alta are something the district can learn from, Wheeler said.

"I think it's a framework and a research-based framework," he said. "The actual needs of each campus are different. But there is at least some semblance of a blueprint there."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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