Accountability is crucial for improving New Mexico’s educational system. So why is eliminating the A-F grading system for public schools the right step forward to more, not less, accountability?

That’s because the new system the Public Education Department is proposing will give parents and the community more information about school performance — and that information will be delivered objectively, with no behind-the-scenes figuring by nameless bureaucrats to arrive at a grade.

Yes, we all know what an A means; however, not one average person would be able to explain how one school receives an A grade and another doesn’t under the current system. The opaque system being abandoned did little other than stigmatize school communities unfairly. We’re glad to see the back of it.

But we still demand accountability, a system that shows how schools are performing, how students are progressing and, most of all, what kinds of support they need to improve. The new team at the Public Education Department has developed a plan that it believes will ensure New Mexico continues to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. It offers accountability without A-F grades, accompanied by proposed legislation that repeals the law creating the current grading system.

Even before the law’s repeal, the Public Education Department is creating a new way of evaluating public schools. Not only should this system satisfy federal requirements, it will give parents and others a better snapshot of how schools are performing.

With a digital dashboard, individual schools will share academic performance data and test scores — that’s important information. However, schools are so much more than a number on a test. On the dashboard will be information about classes, community involvement, after-school activities and the specialty programs that make each campus unique.

The new system will place less emphasis on how students perform on standardized math and reading exams, counting 30 points of out 100 possible, instead of the old 40 percent under A-F. Schools can earn up to 40 points with sufficient student progress over a school year — and considering that all children do not start at the same place, progress is a better measure than the results of one test on one day.

Rather than using letter grades, the new model divides schools into various spotlight designations. The top 25 percent of schools will be New Mexico Spotlight Schools, the middle 50 percent Traditional Support Schools and the bottom 25 percent Targeted Support Schools. Comprehensive Support Schools will be those scoring in the bottom 5 percent and with a graduation rate below 67 percent. Finally, there will be More Rigorous Intervention Schools, focusing on schools that have not improved after three years of support.

The shift from grades to labels is more than cosmetic — it ultimately will demonstrate in specific areas what kinds of assistance different students need. The dashboards will offer plenty of information to parents, too, so that they can decide for themselves whether their children’s schools are meeting expectations. This system is more complicated than the A-F report card, but it also promises more transparency and information. It also lessens the debilitating emotional blow to hardworking teachers and staffers who labor in schools that didn’t score well in a jury-rigged A-F system.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, as she campaigned last year, made it clear that she would reform education, abandoning punitive measures that were failing students and parents. Jettisoning the A-F system is a big step toward delivering results as promised.

On Friday, New Mexico education officials will be submitting an amended plan to meet Every Student Succeeds Act requirements, improving accountability and transparency in the process. And without shaming school communities. That’s school reform to applaud.

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