Belen Schools' SBA scores continue to fall

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Looking at five years of standardized test data for Belen Consolidated Schools shows a high point three years ago, followed by a steady decline in New Mexico Standards Based Assessment scores.

The release of the 2014 scores show the district scored lower in reading and math than it did in 2010.

Reading scores for students proficient and above started out at 49.9 percent in 2010 and saw a cumulative fall of seven points to 42.9 this year.

Math scores followed a similar pattern — 34.3 percent scored at proficient and above in 2010 while in 2014 that number was 32.1 percent, giving the district an overall five-year drop of 2.2 percent.

In both categories, Belen hit its high point in 2011, at 50.4 percent for reading and 38.9 percent in math, then began to decline.

The state as a whole saw reading test scores drop by 4.2 points and math by 1.5 during the same five years.

According to a press release from the New Mexico Public Education Department on July 24, across all grades the 2014 SBA results indicated a slight decline from 2013 in the number of students rated proficient or better by 1.2 percentage points in math and 1.6 percentage points in reading.

The department reported this was largely due to a virtually across-the-board drop in scores among the 25 percent of students who participated in a pilot program that allowed them to take the SBA exam on a computer for the first time. 

Belen Consolidated Schools had nearly 100 percent of its students take the test via computer, Superintendent Ron Marquez said.

"We know next year, we are moving to all computer-based testing; there's no choice," Marquez said. "We wanted to work out the bugs."

The superintendent said he felt the use of the computers for the testing probably did impact the scores to some extent.

"At a certain (grade) level, computers are play equipment. So how serious did they take the test?" Marquez asked. "I talked to students at different sites and while they liked using the computers, how much of it was just getting to use them versus actually concentrating on the task."

Schools that volunteered to participate in the computer-based pilot received additional credit, based in part upon the portion of their student body that took the exam on a computer, according to the press release. Teachers whose classes participated in the pilot will not be negatively impacted on their evaluations for next year. 

Average reading proficiency scores across all grades of just those taking the traditional paper exams were flat, and up in math by 0.7 percent, PED said in the same press release. The PED website has SBA score reports going back to 2005.

The Belen district also participated in the PARCC pilot test program to prepare for the Common Core-based standardized test that will be implemented this spring. Marquez said five schools in the district took the PARCC test but those results have not been released yet. And those results might not be indicative of anything, the superintendent said.

Students took the SBAs near the end of March, then those participating in the pilot testing turned around and took the PARCC on April 4, he said.

One thing that is difficult for parents and the public in general to understand is just what the SBA measures.

"They don't see the correlation between a course-letter grade and the SBA score," Marquez said. "The letter grade indicates course completion while the SBA tests on the content of the subject matter. There's a difference between being proficient and knowing the class work. What we want to know is not just did they learn but how did they learn."

To better figure out how students are learning, Marquez said the district is experimenting at the middle school. In addition to the typical report card, students will also receive a standards based report card, he said.

"That will be a good indicator of whether they are ready to go on to the next level," Marquez said. "We are also looking at implementing math and language arts labs so we can translate those As and Bs into proficiency."

The district has seen a drop in enrollment in the last year, he said, and students have left the district if their families were able to do so.

"We don't have jobs to keep them here," Marquez said. "Many of our families are single parents, grandparents raising grandchildren."

Another factor is that in the Belen district, according to the federal definition, Marquez said nearly 300 of the district's 4,000 students are considered homeless.

Homeless has a broad meaning when it comes to students. It means those who may be living with another family and "couch surfing," living in a shelter or hotel with their family or doubled up in a single family house or apartment with another family.

"There just aren't a lot of resources here in Belen," Marquez said.

To better assist students considered homeless, the district gets federal dollars through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Last year the district qualified for $15,000 to directly assist homeless students and this year it is estimating the need will grow and has requested $27,000.

Unlike other school districts, Belen isn't struggling with teacher shortages, Marquez said.

"We are very fortunate. I believe people are here because they decided they want to be here," he said. "And if you look at our teacher evaluations, we had less than five that were ranked ineffective."

Marquez said the good thing about the SBAs is it gives the district a good idea of where it's at among everyone else.

"What's wrong is how much emphasis is put on the scores," he said. "We don't want students to feel discouraged; if you get an F you're not a failure."

After the SBA scores were reported by the Albuquerque Journal last week, American Federation of Teachers New Mexico President Stephanie Ly released a statement saying "it comes as no surprise to education professionals that SBA scores are trending downwards four years into the Martinez administration."

Ly's statement continues, saying that in 2010 professionals were "extremely wary" of the reforms planned by the governor and executed by PED Secretary-Designee Hanna Skandera.

"These 'reforms' have created nothing other than a culture of fear in our schools and communities by effectively branding students as failures based solely on which school they attend," Ly said in her statement.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.