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NM groups urge rigorous testing for high standards

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Hope Morales, state director of Teach Plus New Mexico. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Two New Mexico educational policy groups are urging state leaders to choose student assessments that will maintain high standards and provide accurate and timely data to parents, students and school leaders.

NewMexicoKidsCAN (Campaign for Achievement Now) and Teach Plus New Mexico have published a report summarizing what the groups believe were the successes of the previous assessment method and recommending the important components of new standardized tests to be chosen by the state. “A Test of Resolve: Reinforcing High Expectations and Student Progress in New Mexico” was released Thursday on the NewMexicoKidsCAN website, nmkidsCAN.org.

“We know that sometimes these issues for everyday New Mexicans can be a little bit overwhelming to learn about,” said Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN and a participant in a conference call about the report. “Everyone is a stakeholder, whether you are a parent, a student, a grandparent, a taxpayer. We wanted to put forth these recommendations to everyone in a way that everyday New Mexicans can say, ‘Oh, you know what, I didn’t realize that is where we were. I didn’t realize this big decision was being made.’ … It was both an intent to incorporate more voices into the conversation and to give everyday New Mexicans a tool to engage in the conversations that they may have felt that they didn’t have enough information about to be a part of previously.”

The New Mexico Public Education Department is in the process of selecting a new company to provide assessments to replace the controversial Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) introduced fully into the state’s public schools during the 2014-15 years.

As one of her first acts as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham tossed the PARCC testing. Many educators, parents and students had criticized the tests for numerous reasons, including that they took substantial time away from classroom instruction to prepare for and administer.

Lynn Vasquez, Public Education Department director of assessment, said that the department has listened to many people as it has decided about future testing methods.

“Last spring, the PED held a series of statewide community conversations across New Mexico to engage parents, educators, students and community members to assist with the state’s efforts,” she said. “Our communities clearly vocalized desire(s) for an assessment system that is more culturally relevant to New Mexico students, one that provides value and purpose beyond high school, and one that maintains the academic rigor of the state standards. The current procurement calls for a transition away from PARCC to custom-developed assessments at grades 3-8 and a college entrance exam at high school. These assessments will not be the only measures of student progress. Historically, New Mexico has and will continue to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally required and nationally normed assessment, which also provides a consistent longitudinal and comparative measure of New Mexico’s student performance in math and reading against other states.”

However, some people have noted that NAEP only provides comparisons for two or three grades each year.

Aragon said that the selection of the new assessment method is expected soon, and her group and Teach Plus made four major recommendations regarding them.

The first is they are “rooted in excellence,” that tests continue to assess achievement according to high academic standards and that they accurately gauge student achievement. Another is that they are “aligned with economic opportunities,” that they test for the types of skills and knowledge needed for today’s college programs and career market. A third recommendation is that the tests be designed for “responsible use of resources and time,” that the company demonstrates technical competence in software and delivery systems and that it has data available by May or June so that educators can use information for the following academic year. Finally, the report recommends that the tests be “thoughtfully planned and executed,” that they not require extensive and time-consuming retraining for educators and that they be informative for parents and families.

The “Test of Resolve” report contends that the PARCC tests improved instruction and student outcomes because they provided data that teachers and administrators could use to design curriculum and lesson plans that not only helped youth learn according to Common Core standards but then consequently helped students perform well on future tests.

A former Teach Plus fellow, Amanda Bader, a social studies instructional leader at Rio Rancho High School, said that the past five years of teaching have been the first in 20 years where she felt confident in telling students that if they followed her instruction in the classroom, they would do well on the tests. She called the PARCC assessment an “equitable” method.

“I just really can’t stress enough how important as a classroom teacher high-quality assessments are,” she said. “(Students’) confidence can improve when they can reach a bar that is set at a reasonable but a high level. That rigor does matter because it tells them that we believe we can achieve it. When we have a high-quality assessment in place, that high bar is achievable.”

The report indicates that as a result of high instructional standards and the PARCC assessments, 13,000 more students in the state now test at or above grade level in English Language Arts compared to the numbers in 2015. About 11,000 more are now testing at or above grade level in math. The report said progress is seen for Native Americans, low-income students and other “underserved” populations, a particular concern given the recent Yazzie-Martinez court ruling that orders New Mexico public schools to do a better job educating such students.

While teachers as well as others from various roles in the state did serve on a PED-organized Student Success Task Force to provide input on new assessments, Teach Plus New Mexico State Director Hope Morales of Roswell said more and different teachers’ voices are needed in the conversation but that the process has moved to a new stage where input should be given.

“This will have a direct impact on our teachers and our students in the classroom,” she said, “so we want to make sure that we bring the teachers’ voice to the table before a new system is selected to make sure that we are able to highlight some of those things that are very important to us as educators, which are the opportunity for all students to learn, a chance for an equitable high-quality education and to ensure that we have tools to make sure students are prepared for careers and college after graduation.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.