Grading schools is bureaucratic failure

November 27, 2018

One bit of fallout from this month’s election is especially encouraging.

After seven years of chaos and controversy, New Mexico has an excellent chance to scrap its system of assigning A-through-F grades to some 830 public schools.

If ever a government program deserved to die in the trash heap of an outgoing administration, this is the one.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez wanted the school-grading system. Democrats who controlled the Legislature let her have her way in 2011. This was just months before they became archenemies with Martinez.

Legislators approved a bill with an overall framework to grade schools. They left it to Martinez to figure out the details.

A career prosecutor, Martinez had a great desire to run for governor. But she had no real interest in running state agencies after she was elected. It showed.

She copied Florida’s system of grading schools, instituted when Jeb Bush was governor. Martinez even imported Hanna Skandera, who had worked in Bush’s administration in Florida, to head the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Skandera had never been a teacher, much less a school administrator. It showed.

Skandera’s department once elevated the grade of New Futures High School in Albuquerque to a C, based on bonus points for its sports teams. Trouble was, the school had no athletic programs. Its student body consisted of pregnant teens and new mothers.

This botched grade was not an isolated case. Challenges to the evaluation system became common. Superintendents, in some cases fearing for their job, appealed poor grades.

Part of the problem was the formula Skandera’s department used.

One of her deputies told a legislative committee the grading system was so complex that perhaps only five people in New Mexico understood it.

If thousands of teachers, principals and superintendents couldn’t decipher the grading formula, what chance did they have to improve their schools?

State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, introduced a bill to repeal the school-grading system and develop “understandable guidelines on how to evaluate schools.”

Legislators approved his measure. To no one’s surprise, Martinez vetoed it. That kept her education department in charge of issuing grades as it saw fit.

Now it’s likely that Martinez’s system will be overhauled or eliminated.

Morales, formerly a teacher and a state hall-of-fame baseball coach, is the lieutenant governor-elect. He and Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham take office in January.

Bills to dismantle Martinez’s school-grading system probably will be introduced next month, well before the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 15.

New Mexico’s tight deadlines to study and approve legislation contributed to creating the faulty school-grading system.

Few lawmakers considered that the grade a school receives has a good deal to do with money. Wealthy neighborhoods with well-nourished students have schools that should get high marks. Schools in other places aren’t positioned as well.

Stan Rounds, formerly the school superintendent in Las Cruces, once told me about an elementary school in his district where most of the kids were classified as homeless.

This meant they did not have a consistent place to stay. They might end up on the couch of an aunt one night and a shelter the next.

Yet, Rounds said, his teachers worked hard to help their students succeed, never making excuses because of factors outside their control.

In Morales’ view, school grades in New Mexico are structured in a way that punishes teachers and principals who are doing all they can.

“I was always opposed to the formula,” he said. “It was heavily weighted on PARCC” standardized tests.

PARCC is the acronym for the Partnership for Assessments of Career and College Readiness. It’s a bureaucratic mouthful.

And it’s antiseptic when it comes to adding up rankings in English and math. Kids with empty bellies don’t receive an asterisk next to their score.

Morales said he is not necessarily opposed to grading schools.

“If the objective is to provide guidance and support of where we can improve, I can see the value,” he said.

That’s not the way it worked out. Martinez relied on a copycat system, mimicking Florida’s program, and her cabinet secretary of education never understood what good teachers do.

Had Martinez done a more conscientious job of evaluating schools, she might receive an incomplete as her grade. Instead, there’s no choice but to rank her based on performance.

She gets an F.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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