Emboldened and empowered by newly elected Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, efforts to dismantle New Mexico’s many strong education policies are now underway. Last week, as the state’s legislative session ended, lawmakers took their first big step in rolling back years of laudable progress made by former education secretaries Hanna Skandera and Christopher Ruszkowski and many others. They passed a bill that, when signed by the governor, will scrap New Mexico’s great A–F school rating system and replace it with a series of “text labels” designed to obfuscate school performance.
Implementing this law will be a big mistake that will harm New Mexico’s most vulnerable students.
ESSA requires states to annually identify their lowest performing schools, which are then subject to intervention. There is no explicit mandate, however, to assign ratings to schools beyond those identified for intervention and those not. States that publish A–F grades and the like are choosing to do so voluntarily.
Nevertheless, in a 2017 analysis, Mike Petrilli and I found that thirty-five states, including New Mexico, took it upon themselves to create easy-to-understand annual school ratings. And for good reason. A–F grades, five-star systems, and user-friendly numerical models provide clear signals to parents, citizens, and educators about the quality of a school and can nudge systems toward improvement.
Other models fall short of this standard. Text labels that are easy to understand have some merit, but these often fail to communicate clearly. And systems that offer numerous data points with no bottom line (for example, “data dashboards”) or that employ murky text labels do neither. They’re Orwellian and keep interested parties in the dark about current school quality.
Sadly, New Mexico’s new school ratings will fall into the lattermost category—ruining one of the best systems in the country and turning it into one of the worst. Taking the place of intuitive letter grades would be the following five categories:
- Targeted Support School
- Comprehensive Support School
- More Rigorous Intervention School
- New Mexico Spotlight School
- Traditional Support School
I listed these in a random order—and did so intentionally. Which label is best? Which is worst? It is of course impossible to tell. New Mexico has branded these “spotlight” designations, which as my colleague Dale Chu quipped recently, is grimly ironic.
In that same essay, Dale shares an illuminating anecdote about his time as a state assistant superintendent:
When I was in Indiana, we inherited an equally enigmatic word salad system. Try sorting these correctly: Academic Watch; Academic Progress; Commendable Progress; Academic Probation; Exemplary Progress. At the public hearing we held prior to switching to an A–F system, a local superintendent testified that the jargon-filled approach was preferable precisely because it was more difficult for parents and other key stakeholders to understand!
The change in New Mexico will have similar effects: Parents will have a harder time determining which schools are good and which are bad. Administrators of bad programs will have an easier time escaping blame, while those at strong ones will find it difficult to get the recognition they deserve. And students will suffer—languishing in poorly performing schools through no fault of their own.
New Mexico has long had some of the worst student outcomes in America. Over a period of eight years, leaders toiled to pass reforms that positioned New Mexico to finally give its students the schools they deserve. The state’s new leadership wants to reverse and roll back all of this progress, and this is merely the beginning. They also plan retreat on teacher quality, school turnarounds, testing, and charter schools.
It’s important that these reversals are not successful.