Sep. 23—Analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee raised concerns Wednesday that little data exists on pandemic-era learning outcomes for New Mexico's students — and that what data does exist shows kids have fallen further behind.
They're also worried the Public Education Department's efforts at getting students back on track might not be sufficient as districts take divergent paths in how they spend pandemic relief funds and evaluate student progress this year.
"We find that districts are not equally utilizing the resources available to them, varying in their strategies and priority towards addressing student learning," said Ryan Tolman, program evaluator for the committee. "This could inadvertently create disparity for students across school districts."
Tolman noted both state and federal governments have poured historic amounts of funding into catching up students who may have faced barriers to learning as schools resorted to online learning in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Kurt Steinhaus, secretary designate for the Public Education Department, expressed concerns the agency lacked the staffing necessary to properly track data and meet the demands of education-related legislation.
"Our research and evaluation department does not exist," Steinhaus said in response to recommendations made by LFC analysts Wednesday.
He later added: "We just flat out don't have the financial or human capacity to do it. I think I know how to do it if we can find the people."
A report compiled by Tolman and others, which pulled in standardized testing data for K-3 students from districts that still opted to test, showed 37 percent of elementary school students were learning at their grade level prior to the pandemic. Only 31 percent are at grade level now.
"Fewer students are proficient now than prior to the pandemic," Tolman said.
At-risk students across the state, shown to be as many as four months behind in progress before COVID-19, now may be as many as six months or more behind, according to the report.
Bridging that deficit could take years of districts' participation in extended-learning-time programs, according to the report.
Still, analysts say they can't be sure just what kind of impact remote learning has had on students unless the Public Education Department measures those effects more cohesively — after waiving the requirement for standardized testing during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.
The waivers concern educational organization New Mexico Kids CAN. Amanda Aragon, the group's executive director, said a conversation around data on pandemic outcomes was 18 months too late. She called for the implementation of statewide testing this spring after reviewing the new report.
"And there are some options for how to get some of that data this academic year, but without the PED mandating it, I don't think it's going to happen," she said.
The Public Education Department recently extended no-test graduation requirements for graduates in 2022 and 2023, citing interruptions to standardized testing during the pandemic.
In districts that did utilize testing, Native American and Black students along with students with disabilities and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch were tested less than their white and Hispanic peers.
"This is important because these groups tend to be more at risk," said program evaluator Mitch Latimer during the Wednesday presentation. "Because they were underrepresented in testing, it will be difficult for PED to target interventions towards those most-at-risk students."
A survey of teachers conducted by the education department showed 72 percent believed pupils learned less during the 2020-21 school year. Forty-seven percent of participating students agreed.
During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers pumped an additional
$80 million into K-5 Plus, which extends the school year by 25 days for elementary students in districts that opt in, and the Extended Learning Time Program, which adds 10 days to the year for schools districtwide.
Currently, only 13 of the state's 89 school districts are utilizing K-5 Plus. Forty-five are utilizing Extended Learning Time, including Santa Fe Public Schools.
An attempt to make those programs mandatory in schools failed during the session, but the LFC report recommends lawmakers reconsider making it a mandate for next school year.
The report also said of the remaining districts that did not participate in either plan, 14 failed to submit a required plan on how to otherwise address lost instructional time.
"If a school district is not submitting what is required in statute, I'm going to bring back something I used when I was at PED before," Steinhaus said in response to Wednesday's report.
He said he would implement a codicil, which would prevent districts from receiving money unless they met requirements.
"That strategy worked really well several years ago. I'm not sure why it's not being used now," he added.
Steinhaus, named to head the department by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during the summer, said the agency is working to build a pilot data system.
"We think that will help address some of the frustrations that you have and I have with not having good data," he added.
The analysts also expressed concerns Wednesday that the department's rollout of back-to-school plans this year was incomplete.
"Much of PED's guidance emphasized accelerated learning," Tolman said. "When we met with teachers this fall, most indicated that they were not even familiar with the concept of accelerated learning."
The implementation of accelerated learning — which favors teaching all students at their grade levels over opting for remediating the students who may be behind — is a major feature in the education department's "Reopening Roadmap 2.0." That plan provided steps for districts to take through the summer to get ready for in-person learning in August.
The report said the department only provided schools with a single webinar to guide them on how to implement accelerated learning.
During Wednesday's session, Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy secretary of teaching, learning and assessment, said the department invested $50 million in pandemic relief funds to help provide professional development on accelerated learning — which is being implemented this year.