Springtime in New Mexico’s public schools for years heralded a practice dreaded by most and hated by many: the dayslong process of standardized proficiency testing.
The math and reading assessments, required for students in grades 3 to 11, in some years drew outrage among parents and walkouts by students. Educators protested the state’s use of the results to evaluate teacher performance and school success.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set out to change that.
One of her first actions when she stepped into office in January 2019 was an executive order dramatically overhauling the testing system. She ordered streamlined versions of the math and language arts tests to be administered the following spring but planned to roll out entirely new exams in spring 2020.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic halted those plans.
Schools in New Mexico largely have dodged statewide standardized testing via federal waivers for the past two years.
Such assessments are quietly returning to classrooms this spring, marking the first time most students in the state are required to take part. For many elementary students, it will be their first experience with the proficiency exams altogether.
It also will be the state’s debut of new assessments called the New Mexico Measures of Student Success and Achievement. The Public Education Department contracted with Georgia-based education nonprofit Cognia to develop shorter tests than those used in the past, with questions that are culturally appropriate for New Mexico kids.
Math and language arts tests will be given to students in grades 3 to 8 each year, while high school students will be assessed just once in those subjects. Students will take science tests three times between grades 3 to 12, according the Public Education Department.
Most high school juniors will be required to take the SAT; the exceptions are students in special education programs, who will be given an alternate assessment.
State education officials hope the tests will provide a clearer picture of how students are faring in key subjects two years into the pandemic — and show whether some big-ticket education initiatives, like extended learning time and community schools, are actually working.
The lack of standardized testing during a long period in which the pandemic disrupted education and led to setbacks among many students has led to a dearth of proficiency data.
“That is one of our concerns,” Public Education Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment said. “Data is important in helping us all make those decisions in a way that’s open and honest. … How are we leveraging programs or activities in a way that helps us all improve?”
Participation in state testing in math and reading was so sparse in the 2020-21 school year, at just over 12 percent of students, the Public Education Department declined to release the results.
Just 3 percent of eligible students at Santa Fe Public Schools took part in the spring testing last year, according to the state.
Some districts administered so-called short-cycle tests in the classroom, which assess students at the beginning, middle and end of the year. According to a report from the Public Education Department, the results of those assessments showed significant declines.
Of the 18 school districts and charter schools that conducted short-cycle tests last year, the rate of students proficient in math declined by 8.41 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels. Just 14.7 percent of students earned scores showing proficiency in spring 2021. Third graders saw some of the steepest declines.
Reading proficiency dropped 2.96 percentage points, to 27.4 percent from 30.36 percent, between 2019 and 2021.
But gleaning much information that’s useful from the small sample group that participated is difficult business.
Not only did districts assess students with different tests, but some students tested at home, while others tested in person.
This year, at least 90 percent of New Mexico’s public school districts and charter schools are participating in some form of short-cycle tests, Warniment said, adding results are expected to be available in June.
Those assessments tend to tell educators more about how students are doing than the statewide tests administered in the spring, she said. “It gives us the growth data that’s very important. Not just within years, but over a year.”
Testing data from Santa Fe Public Schools in the 2020-21 school year showed less dramatic declines and even some promising gains.
End-of-year exams showed 18 percent of students performed “on target” in math, compared to 20 percent who scored proficient on standardized tests administered in spring 2019. The percentage of students who hit reading targets grew from 28 percent to 51 percent.
This year’s test, required for all students, could see different results, however.
District Assessments Director Terry Bryant said students who were more likely to achieve high scores on last year’s tests were probably the ones who opted to participate in higher numbers.
“Not as many students are doing as well as we hoped,” Bryant said, speaking of performance on assessments given earlier this year.
“We have a very hard time making comparisons in a rigorous way between the data we have now and the data we collected during the pandemic,” he added, citing inconsistencies in the types of assessments used and testing conditions.
Bryant said he was unable to provide the assessment data last week but expects to be able to release it soon.
When it comes to the new statewide assessments, scheduled to be administered in local schools in early April, Bryant said having more New Mexico-based questions could help students focus on demonstrating their math and reading skills, rather than getting distracted by unfamiliar names and places.
“If they’re not familiar with the language of the test, then they’re not able to demonstrate what it is they can do,” he said. “I’m optimistic students will do better as the test becomes more fair to them.”