Jul. 25—The news in early March was something to toss a cap about: Santa Fe Public Schools' Class of 2020 had pushed the district's graduation rate to a record 86.3 percent.
It was an increase of 8 percentage points in one year.
The district had far surpassed its goal of boosting the four-year graduation rate to 78 percent by 2023 and boasted one of the highest rates among New Mexico districts with more than 10,000 students — second only to Rio Rancho Public Schools.
Administrators hope the graduation rate will stay on the rise. Numbers for the Class of 2021 won't be available until spring, but officials say the outlook is promising.
"Every year, you know, we've been inching up, but last year was a big jump," former Superintendent Veronica García said in an interview prior to her retirement last month. "... We believe this next year, just looking at the preliminary data, that it will look very, very good as well."
The numbers may look good for 2021. But are the rising graduation rates a sign more students are leaving high school prepared for college and careers?
There are some indications new grads are less prepared than ever — such as rising rates of incoming community college freshmen who are required to enroll in remedial classes. Many education advocates argue, however, college placement tests are an inaccurate measure of a student's knowledge and skills. Similar criticisms have been made against standardized testing in public schools, including assessments required for high school graduation.
The COVID-19 curve?
The steep jump in the graduation rate for Santa Fe Public School's Class of 2020 came as teachers, parents and lawmakers were raising alarms about learning losses from a school year that ended with campuses shut down in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prospective grads spent the final weeks of their senior year in social isolation, logging into lessons online, while teachers retrofitted classroom learning for a new remote model.
Standardized tests were canceled.
The state eased some of its rules for earning a diploma.
Dozens of 2020 grads in Santa Fe Public Schools relied on credit recovery programs and an extension granted by the state to complete their courses. The state also expanded the ways a prospective grad could earn credits toward a diploma — including achieving a certain score on a college entrance exam or "demonstrating applied work."
District data shows 49 members of the Class of 2020 took advantage of the state's extension and 24 engaged in a credit recovery program to earn their diplomas.
But Capital High School Principal Jaime Holladay said she doesn't see the credit recovery program and extension as big changes for grads from previous years.
Students who enroll in summer school and accept their diplomas later than their classmates are still counted as four-year graduates, she noted. Last week, for instance, 50 students from the Class of 2021 turned their tassels after completing credit recovery programs in summer school.
"The time extension, I think there's a misconception about it," Holladay said. "I think if anything, it just alleviated some of the stress for students and parents."
New Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez, who oversaw graduation efforts in his previous position as an associate superintendent, has touted the success of teacher visits to students' homes when it came to getting many 2020 grads over the finish line. The initiative, in which teachers are paid a stipend for their efforts, is expected to continue in the upcoming year.
Chavez also hopes to debut two new options for students who might struggle with traditional graduation assessments: the capstone experience — a longer-term study or creative project culminating in a final presentation — and the portfolio program.
They are on a menu of alternative assessments the New Mexico Public Education Department is allowing districts to implement. While the agency is peeling back some of its pandemic allowances, it is preparing to reshape pathways to graduation. The new rules also will allow students to use SAT and ACT scores, or credentials from a work study or internship, in lieu of a standardized test if they don't achieve a passing score.
Some of the graduation pathways will require students to plan years ahead. A portfolio, according to the state, can be used to demonstrate competence in a variety of subjects and may contain materials starting from a student's sophomore year.
"It may look a little different," Chavez said. "Sometimes difference isn't always what somebody understands is a great way, or a way to meet the requirements, because it's not traditional. But it still prepares them the same way for post-secondary or a career."
Tracking the outcomes of recent grads will be key in ensuring newly developed pathways are effectively preparing them for their future, added Chavez, who wants to see the district's graduation rate rise to No. 1 in the state.
The placement test debate
Amanda Aragon, executive director of the education nonprofit NewMexicoKidsCAN, sees a correlation between recent graduation rates and changing graduation requirements during the pandemic.
Graduation rates can vary dramatically based on the standards a class is required to meet, she said, and she believes those standards shifted a lot throughout the pandemic.
"I do know, out of an abundance of trying to navigate a crazy world, there was a lot of push from the education department to make sure that students were able to graduate," she said. "I'm actually surprised we didn't see a bigger increase in graduation rates."
Aragon looks to data on enrollment in remedial college courses for clues on whether districts are handing diplomas to students who remain unprepared.
According to the state Higher Education Department, 40 percent of New Mexico high school graduates who enrolled in a state college or university as first-time freshmen in 2018 failed to place into a college-level course and had to take at least one developmental course.
Recent data from Santa Fe Community College is more telling. The data show far fewer Santa Fe grads enrolling right out of high school since 2018 — and a larger share of them relying on developmental English courses.
In 2018, an estimated 49 percent of the college's 225 Santa Fe grads took a remedial English class and 56 percent took remedial math.
Last fall, the college enrolled just 159 new Santa Fe grads; 54 percent of them needed a development English course. The rate enrolled in developmental math was unchanged at 56 percent.
College administrators warn those numbers, determined by placement test scores, won't necessarily predict the success of a high school graduate.
"That's a very limiting way to determine whether or not students are ready for college," Santa Fe Community College President Becky Rowley said. "It measures something, I'm sure. But I don't think it measures what we're looking for."
Yash Morimoto, the college's associate vice president of planning and institutional effectiveness, said most two- and four-year institutions are moving away from placement tests. He noted the more developmental courses a student must take, the lower their shot at completing a degree program.
Morimoto and other administrators also fear such tests fail to account for linguistic and cultural diversity. "That's a huge issue," he said. "Especially in communities of color like Santa Fe."
Rowley said a more effective model than remedial courses is accelerated learning, in which a student enrolls in college-level classes they may not be ready for and seeks tutoring and other support to catch up.
A push for new pathways
Among the educators and education advocates eagerly awaiting New Mexico's public school graduation data for 2020-21 is Jeannie Oakes, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute. She expects the numbers to tell a variety of stories: seniors who vanished from classes as well as those who took to remote and hybrid learning and surpassed expectations.
"Some of it is going to get distorted because a lot of people who are more advantaged families went to private schools or went to home schooling and made other arrangements," she said, "and that could actually diminish the number of traditionally high-achieving kids in the system."
Oakes hopes to see a push for the state's new graduation pathways — not just as a plan B for kids who struggle to pass traditional tests but as primary options.
"We won't get to anything significantly more meaningful until we sort of understand that [standardized tests] have their place, but it is just one place," she said.
Holladay agrees. "To be completely honest," she said, "I think it's about time that we look at different ways of measuring success and not just rely on a standardized assessment to see if a student has demonstrated competency or not."
García also favors the new graduation pathways, which she said will emphasize soft skills favored by the business community: punctuality, strong work ethic, an emphasis on civic-mindedness.
"You can't capture some of that in a standardized test," she said.
She added: "I think where the state and probably the nation is moving towards is a more comprehensive and holistic look at what a student is and what they have accomplished over the last 12 years."