Committee Finds State School Report Card System Deeply Flawed

LANL statistician Dr. Dave Higndon reports to the Los Alamos School Board on the findings of the School Report Card Committee, which he chaired. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Los Alamos Daily Post

Dr. Dave Higndon, chair of a Los Alamos School District committee that spent months studying the New Mexico School Report Card grading system, gave the committee’s report at Tuesday’s School Board Meeting.

Higndon is a statistician at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The committee included a number of other technical professionals.

Gov. Susana Martinez instituted the School Report Card system in 2012, which grades New Mexico schools A-F. The system uses a complex statistical formula that weighs student performance and learning growth based on how the students do on standardized tests. The Report Card measures three years of student data.

“The data shows very little variance in student performance from year to year,” Higndon said.

The formula presents some specific problems for the Los Alamos School District. Performance almost always gets an A in Los Alamos, Higndon said. Los Alamos students have displayed proficiency ratings ranging, on average, from the low 70s to the mid-80s in math and reading, with 40 being considered “proficient.”

These high ratings come back to bite Los Alamos when “growth” is measured, however. The state expects growth of about 1.3 percent in math and 1.7 in reading at the elementary school level for students in the lowest-performing quadrant. It’s harder to achieve this standard of growth when you are already performing at such a high level than when your scores start out in the low range, Higndon said. Even in the lowest quadrant, Los Alamos students are out-performing their peers in most other New Mexico schools by a high margin, he said.

The formula came into question when Mountain Elementary, one of the highest performing schools in the state by other measures, received an F grade for growth.

After analyzing the data, the committee concluded that the growth statistics “seem like a group of random numbers” that are “basically meaningless,” Higndon said. Higndon said it is troubling that “50 percent of the points that make up your grade are pretty well meaningless.”

The committee’s recommendation to the school board is, “Don’t make goals that are based on the State’s Report Card. It’s basically random,” Higndon said.

“This message needs to be taken statewide,” Committee Member Morrie Pongrantz said. “Scoring a school on random numbers is nonsense.”

Higdon questioned the notion that, “how a student does on test scores is how we want to measure their success.”