Change in N.M. School Rating System Stirs Debate

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The New Mexico board of education has voted to change its new school rating system by lowering a test-score cutoff, a move that allowed more than 100 schools to escape the lowest rating of "probationary."

In the face of criticism that they were lowering the achievement bar, board members were quick to point out that the change will be in effect for only one year. They also argued that the revision was made necessary by recent revelations that several types of data that board members considered crucial to a fair appraisal were going to be unavailable.

New Mexico's newly expanded and revamped rating system, portrayed at its June unveiling "as an important academic accountability tool," places schools into four categories: "exemplary," "exceeds standards," "meets standards," or "probationary."

The ratings were to be based on two tests—the nationally normed Terra Nova and a customized version of that test designed to reflect the state's academic standards—as well as high school proficiency-exam scores and dropout and attendance figures.

Originally, the state was requiring that a school's median student score be at or above the 50th percentile nationally on the norm-referenced test in order to avoid falling into the probationary category on that one indicator. At its Aug. 25 meeting, however, the state board voted to lower that cutoff to the 40th percentile.

The resulting list showed that of the 651 schools rated, 172—about 26 percent—were rated probationary overall. While that was a stunning jump over the previous year's 25 schools, Pat Rael, the deputy director of accountability and information services, said that without the revision, 314 schools would have made the probationary list.

Under the revised criteria, about 60 percent of the schools rated met standards, and 14 percent exceeded standards or were exemplary. Some K-2, alternative, and very small schools were not rated.

Meanwhile, 16 of the state's 89 districts were rated probationary because half or more of their schools received that rating. Schools or districts on probation have three years in which to improve or face state takeover.

Governor Calls For Change

Gov. Gary E. Johnson, a Republican, used the occasion to renew his repeated call for a voucher system that would let parents defray private school costs with state financing. And his special aide for education, Tim Walsh, criticized the board for a shortened probation list that he said softens the true picture of how many schools are failing their students.

"You've got to have the political courage and will to get the truth on the table, and the members of the board of education don't," he said.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, which regularly presses for statewide school improvements and advocates abolishing the state board, also lambasted the revision. The chamber's president, Terri Cole, told one newspaper that the board was "in denial" about poorly performing schools.

State schools Superintendent Michael J. Davis said he supported the board's decision, and he said the list, however sobering, offers a valuable starting point to improve schools. "The important thing is that we begin somewhere, and we are doing that," he said.

Margaret A. Davis

In the weeks leading up to the August vote, board members said they found themselves in an increasingly difficult position. They learned that the customized, standards-based test results would not be available until late September, and that "growth" data showing year-to-year progress—which was to have been a factor in the ratings—were not available from all grades. Data were also unavailable to show how scores correlated with students' poverty or lack of English proficiency.

Margaret A. Davis, the chairwoman of the board's accountability committee, which recommended the revision to the full board, said that with so little remaining data, members didn't consider it fair to rate a school "probationary" for falling below the 50th percentile on the Terra Nova when the test-maker characterized the 40th to the 59th percentiles as average performance.

"I realize this can be construed as a significant backing-away," Ms. Davis said. "But it isn't. It's the only fair way to approach it given the information we had."

The board expects the full range of data to be available next year, so schools can be rated according to the original matrix, including the 50th-percentile test-score cutoff. "If the numbers still come up high, then so be it," Ms. Davis said.

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 36

Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as Change in N.M. School Rating System Stirs Debate
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