Three elementary schools in Roswell have been recognized for having the top gains in student test scores at the local level.
In the backdrop of that conversation, though, is continuing criticism by some educator groups in the state of a system that they say puts too much emphasis on standardized testing, which they argue does not accurately gauge student learning or achievements.
El Capitan Elementary School, Sunset Elementary and Valley View Elementary had the highest growth in math and English Language Arts scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC, for the 2016-17 academic year, which ended in May.
A controversial test when introduced to local districts in 2015, the PARCC test is described by educators as a much more difficult test than those preceding it. Educators say it requires in-depth understanding of Common Core subjects, a great deal of preparation, as well as good computer skills even in lower grades.
As a whole, the Roswell Independent School District increased in math scores from having proficiency of 21 percent in 2016 to 22.3 percent in 2017, according to a statement from Interim Superintendent Susan Sanchez. The statewide average proficiency in math in 2017 is 19.7 percent, up from 17.4 percent in 2015.
For English Language Arts, proficiency went from 25 percent in 2016 to 26.3 in 2017. Statewide, the ELA proficiency rate for 2017 is 28.6 percent, up from 26.4 percent in 2015, according to Christopher Ruszkowski, New Mexico’s acting secretary of education.
Ruszkowski said he thinks Roswell Independent School District is making good progress.
“Here’s a school district that went from below the average in proficiency in math and is now above the average,” he said. “They are still a little bit below the state average in reading.”
According to information provided by the Public Education Department, El Capitan recorded a 6.2 percent increase in math scores and a 14.5 percent increase in reading, or English Language Arts. Sunset saw an 8.7 percent increase in math scores and a 7.8 percent rise in reading scores. Valley View’s scores increased by 6.5 percent in math and 7.2 percent in reading.
Ruszkowski said that PARCC provides an honest assessment of how students are doing. He said the test was developed by educators and was itself assessed by different groups from varied philosophical perspectives for its ability to measure academic understanding.
“There is a correlation between doing well on the PARCC and doing well in college,” he said. “We can look parents in the eyes and say that if their students are earning fours and fives —scoring as proficient — they are on track to succeed in college or careers.”
The New Mexico chapter of the National Education Association, meanwhile, issued a news release in which their officials and teachers criticized a system that relies on such tests to gauge learning outcomes.
“The PARCC does not pinpoint individual achievement or teacher impact on student achievement. It is only a measure at one point in time of the few things in education that can be measured on a bubble test,” said Charles Goodmacher, government and media relations representative of the educator group.
Principals and teachers at the three elementary schools raising their scores attribute the changes to several factor, including participation for leaders at Sunset and El Capitan in the Principals Pursuing Excellence development program and the University of Virginia School Turnaround Program, which provides intense training and collaboration with other educators on methods to improve student outcomes.
Taking their lesson from the UVA program, El Capitan and Sunset have instituted what is called backward design methods.
El Capitan Principal Stacey Damon and Sunset Principal Mireya Trujillo said that entails developing curricular plans that start with the Common Core standards, with teachers meeting to determine what each grade needs to teach for students to comprehend the skills and knowledge contained in the standards. Student assessment tools are then devised to test for those skills and understanding, and, from there, teachers determine their lesson plans.
“At the end of two weeks they assess, and then we meet and we look at our student data,” said Damon. “And we look at the strengths and the weaknesses that each student has, and, that way, we know which students we need to continue to push forward and which ones are struggling and we need to go back and reteach.”
Teachers and principals talked about the importance of collaboration among various classes and grades (something known as horizontal and vertical alignment), support from leadership, the active involvement of parents, continual tracking of student performances and using individualized learning tools, including online computer programs, to enhance or reinforce learning.
“I think a big part of our growth can be attributed to the importance we place on being a school family,” said Trujillo, “and making sure that we are meeting the needs of all of our stakeholders, from getting community support, involving parents and empowering students to understand their data, to know where they are and where they need to be … and to support the teachers.”
Valley View traditionally has been a high-performing school, earning “A”’s and “B”‘s for their school grades during the past three years. Principal Karla Stinehart said continued strong outcomes is due to both attitudes and specific tactics.
“We have developed a culture built on strong relationships and high expectations,” she said. “We collaborate across all grade levels to identify and replicate best teaching practices. We differentiate and individualize student instruction using our student data. Students track their own data and set goals for their next step in learning. We collaborate by clarifying standards, but, more importantly, by identifying ways to go deep into the learning and ensuring rigor.”
Not all of Roswell’s schools experienced gains, of course. According to the Public Education Department, two schools, East Grand Plains Elementary and Missouri Avenue Elementary, were among those seeing decreases this year in both math and English Language scores.
Ruszkowski said he is well aware that New Mexico public schools have much work to continue to raise student achievement. Statewide in 2017, 71.4 percent of students ranked below proficiency in English Language Arts, while 80.3 percent tested below in math.
For the local district, the percentage below proficiency in math is 77.7 percent, while it is 74 percent in English Language Arts.
Both Stinehart and Ruszkowski said one of the strategies to improve outcomes is to target those students scoring 3s on the tests, just below proficiency, to push them up to the next level.
Ruszkowski also said that, for those schools historically having difficulties, more needs to be done to increase the amount of time students spend on studies.
“We need to extend the learning time,” he said, “to extend the learning day, the learning week, the learning year. … Just as kids practice their lay-ups and their golf swings, they need to be working on their studies.”
Continued professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators are also a high priority, he said, with the state planning to launch a new Kindergarten Academy to improve teaching in the first required year of schooling in recognition of how important early literacy is to academic achievement.
While saying he understands more gains are necessary, he also passed on “kudos” to the Roswell school district, Interim Superintendent Susan Sanchez and her team.
“They had an incredible year,” he said. “They are on the right track, and I can’t say that for every school district.”
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.