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Rural students struggle on N.M. standardized tests

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Some rural New Mexico school districts with sizable Native American student populations continue to struggle on the state’s standardized test even as Native Americans statewide show progress and larger school districts near reservations post record growth.

An analysis of state Public Education Department data by The Associated Press found that the Zuni and Dulce school districts had the highest percentage of students last year scoring “level 1” — the lowest available ranking and well below the proficient mark.

According to state numbers, 45 percent of Zuni Public School District students tested at that level in math and 32 percent scored the same in reading. The numbers were similar for Dulce Independent Schools on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, where only 3 percent of students tested proficient in math and 7 percent were proficient in reading.

The percentage of students testing at the lowest level rose for both districts in 2018 while the percentage of proficient students remained flat. Both districts received an “F’’ grade from the state last year.

Superintendents for the two districts did not immediately return messages seeking comment from the AP.

The results released this week are from the test known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. Administered by New Mexico and other states, the test is designed to show how well schools helped students from grades 3 to 11 meet Common Core standards.

Despite the struggles of certain Native American districts, the statewide results show Native American students have made significant progress.

Native Americans have seen the biggest gains in reading scores over the last four years, climbing from less than 14 percent of students being proficient to nearly 22 percent this year. They also improved in math.

State education officials and superintendents say the reasons include the reforms adopted in schools that serve large Native American populations — from Gallup along the Arizona-New Mexico border to the Farmington and Central Consolidated districts in northwestern New Mexico. Those districts had double-digit gains in improvement for reading and marked steady improvement in math scores.

Farmington Superintendent Gene Schmidt said his district is one of the most diverse in the state, with equal numbers of white, Hispanic and Native American students. He touted his schools’ rates of proficiency, particularly in reading.

“That is a witness to the belief that all kids can learn,” he said, noting that he won’t be happy until every child is proficient.

Gallup Superintendent Mike Hyatt said he was pleased with the improvements in his schools, saying 600 more students this year are proficient in math and reading.

“This is the largest growth our district has ever seen in the history of the school district,” he said. “We were considered the lowest performing school district in New Mexico not too many years back. We have now dug ourselves out of the bottom.”

But he acknowledged the celebration isn’t lasting long as the goal is to surpass the state average, and Gallup schools aren’t there yet.

Hyatt described McKinley County as one of the most impoverished counties in New Mexico. It’s also one of the largest districts when it comes to distance, with one school being more than 100 miles away from district headquarters.

“These things pose challenges,” he said.

But Hyatt said there are opportunities. He pointed to the district’s diversity as a benefit and said the schools have community support.

One example is Ramah Elementary, a small school in a rural area. Since 2015, the school has seen increases in math and reading proficiency of nearly 30 percent, Hyatt said.

The district also has seen its teacher retention rate increase by one third and student suspension rates have plummeted by nearly two thirds. Hyatt said this means teachers feel they’re part of a successful learning environment and that students are more engaged.

“That’s what this is all about — giving students an opportunity to maximize their learning,” Hyatt said.

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