Digging Deep: What Do Districts Grades Really Tell Us?

This is the first in a five-part series I'm putting out this week as a follow up to my initial research on district and state charter school grades in New Mexico.


On November 28th I put up what became the most visited post on NMEducation.org: “Six Things I Learned From New Mexico’s District Grades”. The response was overwhelming. I received dozens of positive messages including some excellent suggestions for additional questions I should explore. Thanks to helpful feedback from readers, I’ve dug back into the data.

First, let’s recap six original insights I shared:

  1. Two of Ten. Of the ten largest districts in NM, two (Farmington and Rio Rancho) get above a "C";

  2. Geography Matters. All "A" districts are on or east of the Rio Grande;

  3. Some Big Districts Do Well. Some of our biggest districts are getting strong results including Alamogordo, Artesia, Farmington, Lovington, and Rio Rancho;

  4. Small Districts Run the Gamut. More than half of New Mexico’s school districts have less than 1,000 students and the distribution of grades for those is: seven "A"s, thirteen "B"s, twenty "C"s, ten "D"s, and one "F";

  5. Lack of Opportunity for American Indian Students. Only one district with more than 30% American Indian students, Farmington, has a "B" or higher; and

  6. Hispanic-Serving Districts Vary Widely. There are seventy-three districts in New Mexico with Hispanic student populations of 30% and greater which include five "A"s, sixteen "B"s, thirty-seven "C"s, fifteen "D"s, and zero "F"s.

In the first analysis I focused only on our 89 traditional districts, excluding state-authorized charter schools. Of course, this strategic omission became topic number one requested by readers. How do state charters fair against districts? How does the socioeconomic status of their students compare? Readers also want to know how socioeconomic status - inferred from free and reduced lunch (FRL) statistics - intersects with district grades?

I heard everyone loud and clear. My initial analysis was helpful and left you wanting more, particularly around issues of equity. Using data from New Mexico's Indicator-Based Information System and NMPED, I've done exactly that. Peer pressure is an Achilles' heel of mine.

I Do, We Do, You Do

I want to start by giving you an assignment as this analysis must be a collective effort. Using the interactive graph below, find all districts and state charters that received an "A" and which have 50 percent and more of their students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL). Use the sliders and filters on the right to aid your efforts. HINT: there are six total. Tweet at me with what you find.

Using the same graph, find an LEA near you with an "A" or "B" which serves a student population of 50 percent and more of American Indian OR Hispanic students. Is it a district or state charter school? How many of their students are eligible for FRL? I hope you're getting the hang of this by now. I want this to be a tool you use to find new insights relevant for your own communities.

District and Charter Grade Distribution

The most frequent question I received was on this topic. Beyond district grades, you want to know how they stack up against state charters. Let's start with the basics. Currently New Mexico has 89 districts and 62 state-authorized charters schools. (These charters are overseen by the elected ten-person Public Education Commission commonly known as the PEC, rather than local school districts.) For our purposes I'm working with a total of 151 local education agencies (LEAs).

As you can see above, there are 18 "A"s altogether, with eight traditional districts and 10 state charters. This is promising given state charters make up less than half of the 151 LEAs in New Mexico, and have roughly 16,000 students. Put another way, for every student in a state charter school, there are 20 in traditional districts.

The District Picture

For districts, who have 319,769 students, the grade distribution is a clean bell curve with 43 "C"s. Out of this group a mere 1.7 percent, or 5,382 students, attend "A" districts. Meanwhile 22,845 (7.1 percent) students are in "D" or "F" districts. What does it mean for us when less than 2% of students have the opportunity to go to an "A" district?

In practical terms this means parents and students are at a disadvantage before ever setting foot in the school. This is known as the "opportunity gap" where many students aren't provided equal opportunities to learn from the start. Schools can never guarantee uniform outcomes (kids have different interests and talents) but ensuring even baseline skills and knowledge is severely hampered when equal opportunities to learn aren't available to all.

Also of note is that districts typically have more students eligible for FRL (70.72 to 61.59 percent). Districts also tend to have more American Indian students (25.19 to 9.02 percent) but less Hispanic students (42.65 to 58.56 percent) on average. As high-quality charter schools grow in New Mexico we'd expect these demographic differences to smooth out over time. Over the past ten years, depending on region, charter schools have trended towards higher populations of FRL eligible and minority students than traditional districts.

The size of districts appears to have little to do with grade. For the 51 districts with less than 10,000 students, there are as many students (4,742) in "A/B" seats as there are in "D/F" seats (4,183). As we found above, these "D/F" districts have higher concentrations of poor and minority students across the board.

What have we learned? Districts still account for more than 93% of New Mexico public school children. This is either good or terrible news, depending on where you live. For us, zip code is still educational destiny. For those who can, choosing where to live is still our primary strategy of "school choice." Next I look at our state charter schools, which seek to even this playing field, providing opportunities to families without the means to change neighborhoods or pay for private school.

[12/12] For Our Future: This Week's Education News & More

Friends & Colleagues -

Perhaps providing us a preview of things to come in 2018's legislative session, these past few weeks have been jam packed with local and national education news relevant to New Mexico. I ramble enough below so let's jump right in:

[LOCAL: NEWS] Three APS Schools Designated for Rigorous Intervention. All three elementary schools (see table below) have received F grades for at least the past five years. I had a lot to say about this happening in the same week as APS Superintendent receiving a $250,000/year extension, so I wrote a post over at Retort.

https://retort.online/2017/12/08/excuses-quarter-million-dollars-can-buy/

https://retort.online/2017/12/08/excuses-quarter-million-dollars-can-buy/

APS Elementary Schools Designated for Intervention

APS Elementary Schools Designated for Intervention

[LOCAL: NEWS] Mission Achievement Success Approved for Expansion. In great news for students and families of Albuquerque, the Public Education Commission (PEC) has approved MAS for a second school site. I've gotten to know MAS's founder and principal, JoAnn Mitchell, over the past year and continue to be amazed by her vision and commitment. This groundbreaking decision by the PEC provides more students the opportunity to have the skills and experiences to be our future leaders. Here's more information on MAS:

MAS charter currently serves 785 students near the Sunport. The school primarily has students that qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and the campus has a higher proportion of Hispanic and African-American students than the state and Albuquerque Public Schools. While a student population like this often leads to excuses and lowered expectations across the city and across our state, students at MAS are getting amazing results because the school’s educators accept nothing less. Students at MAS grow academically at rates far beyond that of other schools in the state, and read and do math on par with schools in more affluent communities like the Northeast Heights.
— Matthew Pahl - Executive Director, New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools (NMCCS)

     I'll also mention that at a conference for NMCCS this past weekend, Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski made an ill-informed remark about "Manifest Destiny" while also calling for more high-quality school options for all students. Yes, given our long history of oppression and colonization, it is a hurtful and misguided metaphor. Though let us not allow this misstep to detract away from his broader point about the need for us to do better by our students. I hope his comments about the need to have extended school days, honoring our best teachers (more on that below), and holding all schools accountable for teaching all students who walk through their doors are given equal consideration.

[LOCAL: NEWS] New Mexico Teachers Bring Home Awards. Teachers across the state are being recognized for their tireless and impressive work. Melanie Alfaro, math department head at Deming Intermediate School, took home the prestigious Milken Educator Award for "incorporating assessments, collaborative projects, and parental involvement in her teaching strategies." Seven other teachers statewide, including four APS middle school teachers, garnered 2018 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching as recognition of remarkable work. Teaching is a tough, often thankless job that, when done well, truly changes lives. The more we honor and reward those who've mastered their craft the better.

[LOCAL: NEWS] Legislative Finance Committee Tackles Education Budget. Last Thursday I made the trek up to Santa Fe as the LFC took its first look at NMPED's proposed 2018-19 budget. The webcast recording is online here. A few highlights:
     - NMPED proposed a "flat" budget of $2,695,524,500 including the following increases:
          - $4 million for additional pre-k programs;
          - $2.5 million for instructional materials;
          - $1 million for STEM initiatives; and
          - $300k for K-3 Plus
     - There was a near-capacity audience of 100+ folks from across NM
     - NMPED attempted to include testimony from school/district leaders, teachers and parents but that was nixed by LFC Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom who said there wouldn't be time for everyone to speak
     - Testimony permitted included: Arsenio Romero (Deming Superintendent), Melanie Alfaro (Milken Educator of the Year mentioned above), Tommy Turner (Mosquero Superintendent), and Mike Hyatt (Gallup Superintendent)

[NATIONAL: RESEARCH] New Measure of School District Performance Yields Promising Insights. New analysis from The Upshot takes data (based on roughly 300 million elementary-school test scores across more than 11,000 school districts) from Stanford's esteemed Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) for a fresh look how we think about school districts. By analyzing how scores grow or not as student cohorts move through school, Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that "it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools."

I was surprised to see that places like Hatch and Gadsden, with nearly half the median household income of Albuquerque, achieve higher learning rates than NM's largest city. I've included some graphs for APS below, but please explore for yourself.