Education chief talks about move to grading system while in LA

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Schools: Skandera proposes an alternate evaluation method

By Arin McKenna

New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera had breaking news at a luncheon hosted by the Los Alamos Schools Credit Union yesterday at the Central Avenue Grill.


The United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan had just announced a plan to grant waivers to states proposing alternate evaluation methods for No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Skandera has been formulating a plan she intends to put forward.

Skandera’s plan would replace the pass/fail system of NCLB with a graded system which would rank schools from A through F. “When it comes to No Child Left Behind, it labels a school a failing school and it’s labeled that way forever and ever,” Skandera said. “What if they’re actually making progress? That progress is not captured even if those kids are still on a trajectory in the right direction because they’re not there yet.” The gradations of the A through F system would reflect that progress.

According to the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) reports released in July, 87 percent of New Mexico schools failed. “I fundamentally don’t believe that 87 percent of our schools are failing in this state,” Skandera said. “There are nearly 40 different ways that you can make or not make the criteria. You can have 39 out of 40 met and you’re still labeled a failure. So having a more nuanced approach I think is going to be better.”

New Mexico State Representative James Hall, who attended the luncheon, asked for clarification. “So you’re saying it’s a defect in the measure, not a defect in the school.” Skandera unequivocally replied, “Absolutely.”

The secretary, with input from superintendents, is considering two different formulas for the evaluation, which she calls “Thing 1” and “Thing 2.” Thing 1 is a very simple formula which works well, but does not incorporate what Skandera calls “an added value model.” That model would consider differences such as demographics, mobility and income level.

“The more complicated data set is much more fine tuned. With the value added model, you can ask, what’s the growth taking place?” Skandera said. “With AYP, it assumes all of out schools have the same demographics: poverty, mobility, English learners. All of those things have been linked to student achievement, but the teacher and the school have no control over it. If we were able to neutralize those things, then we could ask how are we doing? What’s the progress we’re making?”

Skandera believes the grading systems would allow for a more detailed assessment of where schools are succeeding and where they need to improve so resources could be better directed.

Another difference in Skandera’s plan is that data would be collected for a three year period, for example, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. This would give a more thorough analysis of a student’s progress, rather than a “snapshot” of the student in one point in time.

“We’re trying to shift from a compliance agency to serving those that we’re teaching,” Skandera said.

The plan received a positive reception from those present at the luncheon, which included Los Alamos Public Schools (LAPS) Superintendent Eugene Schmidt, LAPS Board President, Melanie McKinley and Los Alamos County Council Chair Sharon Stover.

Skandera also spoke about a task force the Governor Susana Martinez has appointed to look at how the state recruits, retains and rewards public teachers and school leaders. “They will look at how we measure effectiveness and how we honor and award our people and how we recruit. They’ll also look at how we recruit some folks from outside the teaching profession into the teaching profession, particularly in subjects like math and science,” Skandera said.

Schmidt asked the secretary for help with Los Alamos’ goal to become one of the nations Top 100 schools.

“We’d appreciate knowing who those schools are that are already there and how they got there.”

Stover asked Skandera to look into the state’s funding formula for public schools. This touched a chord for Min Park, owner of the Central Avenue Grill. “I believe the state equalization law was a good thing to make sure that all schools were adequately funded. It’s good to have a base level of funding provided by the state to assure that all schools are able to teach the basics.” Park said. “But the formula does not allow individual school systems to fund other things they believe are important, like sports or music. The state should allow communities to support what’s important to them.”

The luncheon broke up quickly so the secretary could leave for a tour of the construction at Los Alamos High School. Skandera received a thorough tour of the school, and seemed pleased with what she saw.