The Public Education Department has been unwavering in its focus on using standardized tests to “raise the bar” for education in New Mexico.
State Senators recently approved a resolution that proposes a new paradigm of student assessment.
If you want to hear about the “stakes” in high-stakes testing, just ask a working parent who’s struggling to make ends meet.
“If you don’t do it, it can really mess up your chances for college and for getting scholarships," said Kelly, a mother of two students in Albuquerque Public Schools.
Two years ago, Kelly’s daughter was among the hundreds of New Mexico students that refused to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. APS warns that opting out may prevent students from graduating with a diploma down the road.
Kelly says it’s a catch-22 for parents who want to protect their kids’ future, but are frustrated with standardized testing. “I really wish we’d actually connect stuff more to real-life ideas rather than a piece of paper or a computer screen," she said.
KUNM tried to talk to New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera to get her take on this, but she did not respond to multiple requests. She did speak with New Mexico PBS in the spring of 2015 during the first round of PARCC testing.
“Sometimes it’s ironic to me we spend so much time talking about assessments," said Skandera. "You and I, when we were in school, we took assessments. It’s state and federal law.”
Skandera praised the computer-based test for being more rigorous and taking less time.
“It’s not a new idea to measure how well we’re doing," she told NMPBS. "That’s an important conversation to have, but the real important conversation is, what are we going to do about it? How do we provide reading coaches, intervention coaches. The key is, you don’t know a student is struggling until you know where they are.”
The number of states using PARCC to meet national Common Core standards has shrunk from 24 in 2012 to less than ten this year.
Still, Skandera, who is now chair of PARCC’s unpaid governing board, says PARCC is the “best assessment in the nation today.” This year she touted New Mexico’s record-high graduation rates as proof that reforms are working.
But the value of testing based on Common Core in the U.S. is far from clear. In 2015, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, showed a drop in math scores for the first times in decades.
Tony Monfiletto, executive director of the NM Center for School Leadership, says it’s time for a change, but not because the bar is set too high.
"Standardized tests were seen as being a way to provide equity, because it theoretically has high expectations for every student," Monfiletto explains. "So that notion I think is powerful and appropriate. The next step is finding new ways to set high standards."
In 2015 Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law that gives states more control over how they test students.
“They recognize that heavy-handed federal presence was really undermining innovation and local control,” says Monfiletto.
This legislative session, Monfiletto is joining Democratic Senator Michael Padilla in backing a resolution to allow New Mexico to seek federal funds to create an alternative assessment system.
“My ideal scenario would be that we would have what are called performance tasks – students actually doing things, completing tasks, and the outcome of those tasks would be judged by teachers," Monfiletto explains. "So you wouldn’t have a standardized test.”
It would be a radical shift for New Mexico, but Monfiletto says it’s not a new idea. Montessori schools have done it for decades, and APS high schools like Next Gen Academy and Atrisco Heritage also use project-based learning.
Monfiletto says it’s about identifying what young people need to succeed, and finding practical ways to judge whether they can do those things.
Students from the public charter Native American Community Academy weighed in last month on how they’d like to be taught and assessed at a forum about the federal ESSA.
Junior Reshawn Edison says science is a subject he used to hate -- until he had a teacher who took it beyond the textbook.
“What worked for me was a lot of humor and different activities that coincide with the subject, to make it more engaging," said Edison, "because I’m a person who wants to really do something, not just sit there.”
Edison and his peers had a hard time imagining an assessment outside the realm of testing, perhaps because they’ve always had tests. But they all know what it feels like to be excited about learning, and it looks a little different for everyone.
The People, Power and Democracy project examines ethics, transparency and accountability in state government. The project is funded by the Thornburg Foundation and by contributions from KUNM listeners.