School grading systems contain valuable data

An open letter to the community
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Five years ago, under the federal No Child Left Behind accountability system, commonly known as “AYP,” not a single school in Farmington was considered “passing.” Since the introduction of the new School Report Card grading system, Farmington schools have moved from D’s and F’s to A’s, B’s or C’s with only one D in the entire school system. The Gallup-McKinley district has seen similar success, as they have 19 schools whose grades have improved by a letter grade or more in just a single year. Additionally, Gallup-McKinley has seven fewer schools with a failing grade.

We have heard the arguments for both sides of the School Report Card system. Some present the case that the school grading system is flawed in its complexity; others present the case that holding schools accountable for student achievement is needed to drive continuous improvement. Truth has it; students, parents, staff and communities grade their school’s success every day through various factors such as enrollment, engagement in schools, setting high expectations, approving bonds to remodel and/or build new schools. So for a moment, let’s park the political conversation about School Report Card Grades and grasp how this assessment tool can be used to inform instructional decision-making that leads to improved student achievement.

The important factor behind these improved grades is growth in student achievement. Yes, both districts still have a long way to go before reaching the goals of “academic excellence for all” and “every student graduates college and workforce ready.”  Significantly, the data embedded within the School Report Card Grades can be used to help guide our path.

School reform measures such as the New Mexico Public Education Department’s Priority School Bureau Principals Pursuing Excellence program created an opportunity for 10 Farmington principals to sharpen instructional, leadership practices and takes advantage of information gleaned from the school report cards. For example, data from the School Report Card helped principals frame instructional strategies educators are using to move increasing numbers of students towards proficiency.

In Gallup, Chee Dodge Elementary School, where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, recently saw their grade move from an F to a C.  They have chosen to participate in the University of Virginia School Turnaround Specialist Program and are also proving that a commitment to students allows for rapid and needed change. Educators from both school districts understand the urgency of their work and are using the skills drawn from the data to help drive their instruction.

Information within the School Report Card can be used to guide school improvement. It is our belief that students, regardless of income, zip code, and/or background can achieve academic excellence. It is what we do with the data that makes a difference in the educational lives of our children.  As we look to the future, it would be our hope school districts across New Mexico would have an opportunity to receive training from the Priority Schools Bureau to advance the educational achievement of their students.

Gene Schmidt PhD, superintendent Farmington Municipal Schools 

Frank Chiapetti, superintendent Gallup-McKinley County Schools