BY MAIRE O’NEILL
While the community is working towards filling four seats on the Los Alamos Public Schools Board, there has been some discussion among candidates about reading and math proficiency levels in the district. The Los Alamos Reporter sat down last week with Interim Supt. Jennifer Guy and Sharon Fogle, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment to see what they had to say about how things are going in the district.
All District achievement data since 2005 is public record and can be seen at
https://webnew.ped.state.nm.us/bureaus/accountability/achievement-data/ where it is archived by the state Public Education Department.
“I have found the conversation around defining achievement a little bit frustrating because it’s not a simple conversation to have when you don’t know what data sources people are quoting,” Superintendent Guy said. “When you’re looking at different tests and different standardized measures over time, it entirely depends on which test you’re looking at and to what test they are comparing it.”
Different measures have been used at different points in time through the years and achievement has sometimes been standardized by different assessments.
“I’m all about improvement. I think we need to pay more attention to our math scores. I think when you go back and look at the data, you’ll see that Los Alamos has performed well above the state average and above national averages in many cases,” Guy said.
Fogle noted that understanding the history of the assessments and the changes LAPS has gone through with them is key. She said schools went from a state-based assessment called NMSBA and then when Common Core was adopted they moved to Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized testing.
“The state made a shift again just in the last two years with the new administration to move back to state-based approach to assessment called New Mexico Measures of Student Success & Achievement (NM-MSSA). This assessment was written and evaluated with New Mexico’s schools in mind and this was the assessment that was scheduled to be given for the first time in 2020 which was the spring of COVID,” Fogle said. “That was the year that nationally, the federal government gave blanket waivers for testing, so we didn’t do the testing that year. Then last year, again we were given the option of within reason, to give the test or not, and Los Alamos chose not to because those tests have to be given and proctored in person and we couldn’t guarantee that we were going to be in-person and we didn’t think it was feasible to give the tests so we chose not to.”
Fogle said there have been claims that LAPS is not being transparent about the NM-MSSA system.
“It’s because they don’t understand that we don’t have data aligned to this new testing requirement,” she said. “we do have some data based our interim assessments that we use three times during the school year but you can’t compare the two of those because again, for the current system that we have, the summative or the final assessment in the spring has a writing component and our interim assessments don’t assess the writing component.”
Guy said one of the District’s perpetual challenges in education is the ever-changing landscape of testing.
“Every time we change tests, not only do staff have to learn to look at it and interpret it differently, but parents, everybody has to get used to looking at data in a different way, which can be crazily frustrating for parents and staff both,” she said. “One of the things that I think is being missed in the conversation that’s going on is taking a step back and looking at what are those measures that we do have consistently over time.”
One of those consistent measures over time is the LAPS graduation rates.
“Ultimately our goal is to see that all of our LAPS kids graduate. Our graduation rates have steadily increased over the last seven years and last year our graduation rate was 93.3 percent, up from 91.4 percent the previous year. Last year, the state percentage was 76.9 percent and the national average was 85 percent. Are our kids being successful and are our kids learning and accomplishing what they need to do? Are we getting them through graduation? We’re significantly above the national average and the state average,” Guy said.
She said another thing the District is consistently seeing is challenges and fluctuations with math scores.
“You can take a look at math in lots of different ways. How did they pull the data? Did they pull the data by grade level? Did they pull it by course? Did they pull it by success? And math sometimes is a little bit different. Overall, I think we do have challenges in math. We have seen some decline in our math scores. Our reading scores have continued to consistently improve,” Guy said. “The question Sharon has been bringing up to staff is how do we use our strengths in reading comprehension to accelerate and boost their math achievement because we do have significant high achievement with reading and how do we transfer those skills and apply them to math and the understanding of math.”
Fogle said when the state adopted the Common Core standards there was a significant shift from how math was taught and understood previously.
“We’re still adjusting to teaching in that different way. Our last math adoption was the first math adoption where we actually had curriculum and professional development for our teachers. When the shift was made to Common Core, textbook publishers and professional development really did not address the standards for the way Common Core was intended to be. It took a while for the publishing companies and curriculum to adjust to those standards,” she said.
Last year, LAPS adopted the curriculum K-12 for math and Fogle said she’s excited about the potential that has.
“I kind of consider this year to be the first because it’s the first year back in person. We’re working now to bring in some more professional development for the teachers so that they can better see how to use the resources that they got last year but we weren’t able to really dig into them like we will be able to this year,” she said.
Guy noted that LAPS has finished its first short cycle assessment window for this school year and fata is being gathered from that.
“A lot of people nationwide and in the community are talking about learning loss and I don’t think we’re seeing a lot of evidence across the board in Los Alamos. We’re going to really take a look at each student individually because while we have some students that didn’t fare as well and definitely have some academic deficits and some learning loss, we have some students that stayed right on track in some classes. We also have some that shot way up in one area or another and so now we can also provide them some enrichment because it’s the first opportunity,” she said. “We had pockets of kids that tested last year. This is the first time that we have had data across the board for K-8 and high school students will take the PSATs coming up this month.
Fogle said the interim assessments that were given look at where the students were at the beginning of the school year.
“We would expect the scores to be lower at the beginning of the year and then we will monitor in January 2022 to see the growth they’ve had and then again at the end of the school year. We’re going to test to see where they are on the current grade level standards so that we can move them forward instead of looking at it as a deficit approach of trying to move them forward to where they need to be,” she said.
Guy said that’s going to be an adjustment because with the old (Measure of Academic Progress) MAPS assessment, when students took it, the questions got progressively harder until they maxed out, so a second grader could be answering fifth or sixth grade questions. She said the new assessment benchmarks them by grade level material so it’s really another shift in understanding what is being looked at.
“Overall we’re holding steady with slight increases in proficiency, especially reading comprehension. But in some of our algebra and pre-algebra we see math scores start declining when we get to about fifth grade. We’ve looked at lots of different things that might cause this such as the materials we use. And whether there are holes in it,” she said.Guy also discussed curriculum mapping which was started by Kathryn Vandenkieboom before she retired and has been picked up by Fogle.
“For example, if fifth grade is not performing well in geometry, we look at the curriculum we have that teaches geometry and where it connects back to what we’re doing. We look at whether or not we need to supplement. Curriculum mapping is helpful for teachers and parents,” she said. “Why do we see that decline when we get to fifth grade? It’s hard to answer that question if we don’t have the standards or benchmarks for what we should be teaching or what we are teaching them and how it is being measured.”
Guy said instead of just looking at curriculum mapping which has been done in Los Alamos over the years and trying to do little pockets, the District is now approaching it differently.
“We did k-12 and looked at it across the board so that we could see where is that continuum and where do the kids fit and where is the instruction, and where do we need to shift materials or shift standards,” she said.
Fogle noted that when the curriculum teams were working during the summer, there was some realization that not enough time is being spent on statistics, probability and geometry.
“We’re spending a lot of time on those foundational skills and we need to be teaching the rigor and the difficulty level – we need to up that. Sometimes it’s easy to get complacent when you’re just within yourselves and comparing yourselves. When teachers can actually look to see what is the standard, and what level they are supposed to be teaching that standard at that grade level and they realize they’re not quite meeting the challenge the students need to see. Then they can give the students more opportunities in those content areas where they aren’t placing as much emphasis as they should be,” she said. “Again that’s where Common Core shifted on the math reasoning and the modeling. The emphasis is different in that to what it was 15-20 years ago.”
Guy said Fogle is looking at it through that lens of strength where “we’re good at reading so how do we use that to inform the math instruction and where do we make those changes”.
“I believe that it’s incredibly important that we are one of the top schools in the country, not only in New Mexico. I think that we have to be able to compete nationally and understand how we perform nationally to give our students the best education that they need. I think it’s critically important in all of those scores to prepare where we can and do those things. Los Alamos is still performing well. There’s always room to improve, but Los Alamos is performing well,” Guy said.
Foglel said there are studies emerging now that looked at the last 18 months of learning.
“What we see in our math is very typical of what the national statistics are showing, that with reading instruction and reading comprehension – once you learn how to read you’re practicing that skill whereas with math, the skills progressively get harder as you go up,” she said. “Reading did not decline – in fact they were surprised when the data came out that reading didn’t suffer nationally, maybe one or two points below where kids would typically be but in math overall they did see a significant degrade or decline in the skills that the students had been able to master compared to a normal school year. Our students are consistently scoring proficiently and we have to be careful to understand the data that we’re looking at before we make those comparisons.”
How do parents know how their child is performing? The key thing, Guy said, is for parents to ask the child’s teacher.
“Really looking at every child individually is what we’re really good at. Our teachers can use not only the short cycle assessment, they have access to all the historical data on each child but they also use different assessments within the classroom. Parents can ask the teacher how their student is performing, what skills they are strong at, what skills they are weak at. They can have a conversation with the teacher and ask how they are practically doing and how they compare to the rest of the class,” she said.