Dems say state's A-F grading system is flawed

Robert Nott
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Winter legislative session

SANTA FE — According to a new legislative analysis, the state Public Education Department's A-F school grading system favors more affluent schools in New Mexico, which tend to earn A's and B's, while it works against schools that have a high percentage of students who are in special-education programs, are from low-income families or are English-language learners. Those schools, the report says, often get D's and F's.

Schools that drop three or more letter grades over the course of a year also tend to be linked to high populations of economically disadvantaged students, the report says.

Those were two of the main points to come out of the analysis, which the Legislative Education Study Committee presented Wednesday morning to the Senate Education Committee.

The study reflects concerns and critiques that educators, lawmakers and others across New Mexico have had of the A-F grading system since the Legislature passed it into law in 2011. It also gives weight to arguments that poverty impacts learning, though the report did not address that issue.

Assigning school grades has been one of the cornerstones of Gov. Susana Martinez's educational reform platform -- both to inform the public about school performance and to determine which schools are struggling and need additional resources.

But Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Education Committee said the report confirms that the A-F school grading system is flawed. They also reiterated concerns that the complex measures behind the system's grading formula are not easily understood.

"We would not allow our teachers to grade our students in the way that PED is grading our schools," said committee member Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, a retired educator. He said the system is unfair to schools.

Among other factors, the system weighs student performance, individual student growth and the growth of both the highest-performing and lowest-performing groups of students. Last year, the grading system shifted from using the results of the decadesold Standards Based Assessments that tested students in several different core areas to using the new PARCC tests, which only assess student proficiency in math and reading.

In 2013, a committee of Los Alamos physicists, statisticians and math experts who analyzed the school grading system said it doesn't pass scientific muster and that they would have a hard time explaining it to a layman.

"I don't think the formula ... is a true indicator of how our schools are doing," said Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He said the fact that lawmakers are still asking how the formula works after four years is evidence "that there is a lack of transparency" in the system.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said beyond the complex measures used to grade schools, the actual grades themselves can do damage. "You devastate an entire community when you label them an 'F' school," he said.

One Republican lawmaker on the committee, Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, said schools in his district with economically disadvantaged students earned high marks from the state. Of Rio Rancho's 18 schools, nine received A's, six received B's and three received C's in 2015.

About 42 percent of the Rio Rancho school district's 17,200 students are from low-income families, while as many as 70 percent of students in the Santa Fe Public Schools are low-income.

Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the Public Education Department, said the report on the school grading system "is incredibly flawed. Not only does it fail to mention districts and schools that are seeing results, but it also neglects to include the fact that 60 percent of all schools have grades that either went up or stayed the same in the most recent report."

He said the A-F grading system gives parents an easy-to-understand rating so they know where their school stands.