Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

New Mexico aims to reverse trend of poor math scores | Education

Debra Parke rushes across the room, helping her eighth grade algebra students at Ortiz Middle School tackle quadratic equations.

The answers are on the backs of their worksheets.

Still, the students work intently to solve the problems; they’ll get credit for demonstrating their work on the page.

Parke bounces from lesson to game to independent work in rapid succession — a strategy to prevent students from zoning out.

She is one of many educators in Santa Fe Public Schools and across the state who face a daunting task: trying to reverse a trend of poor student math scores.

The results of standardized math tests in New Mexico, including in Santa Fe, for years have shown only about a fifth of students can demonstrate proficiency, a problem that leaves many kids struggling to keep up with peers, can prompt high schoolers to drop out and leads to high numbers of college students in remedial math classes.

Recently, Santa Fe district administrators reported 12 percent of students who participated in midyear exams earned scores showing proficiency, far below the 49 percent of test takers who scored well in reading. School officials said they are confident the rate of students grasping math skills will rise to about 20 percent by the end of the year — outmatching the 18 percent proficiency rate in 2020-21 and in line with pre-pandemic test results.

“The projections are pretty solid,” said Peter McWain, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, citing steady growth throughout the school year. Only 6 percent of students showed proficiency at the year’s start.

Considering two years of learning disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic, McWain is optimistic about the results.

“We’re surprised we didn’t cut our performance in half because of the pandemic, because a lot of the research is coming out and saying, ‘Expect the worst,’ ” he said.

Still, state education officials, public school administrators, teachers and advocates are searching for solutions to a dismal math proficiency rate that hasn’t budged. They cite a range of needs:

  • More focus on how to teach math in teacher preparation programs.
  • Math teaching coaches in schools.
  • Math tutors — including those who are bilingual — in classrooms.
  • Interactive learning materials that make math more relevant to students’ lives.
  • Initiatives that build enthusiasm around a subject that instead tends to spur anxiety, even in teachers and parents.

On Friday, the New Mexico Public Education Department announced it will launch a yearlong “Math is Me” campaign in August to help improve students’ perceptions of their ability to build math skills.

“A great proportion of the population decides ‘math is not for me,’ and they carry that sentiment into adulthood,” Jacqueline Costales, the department’s director of curriculum and instruction, said in a statement on the new initiative. “So kids come to school with that fear from their parents, and they continue that fear and that belief that math is almost impossible for them to do.”

“To a certain extent, this is a marketing problem,” added Seana Flanagan, who oversees the department’s role in teacher preparation. “How are we marketing math to kids? We have to attract people to teaching who have a passion for math and can convey that and get kids excited about it.”

Parke has several classroom strategies aimed at easing students’ anxiety and boosting their confidence: She begins teaching new material with something kids can grasp right away to ward off low self-esteem; she’s ditched rows of seats for clusters of desks to encourage students to work together; a bilingual “word wall” is displayed near carefully handwritten math posters to help her Spanish-speaking students follow along more easily.

“Having a successful unit first helps,” Parke said. “They feel like, ‘This year isn’t going to be so bad.’ ”

These tips and tricks have largely paid off. Parke estimates in most years, 90 percent of her students pass an end-of-course exam.

The number will probably be lower this year, she said, due to the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, she is seeing sustained growth in her classroom. That’s what Parke lives for.

“I have several students who say, ‘I’ve never gotten math till now,’ “ she said. “So that’s my big smiley face right there.”

Nonetheless, she acknowledged she and her students need additional support. She now has a bilingual tutor in her classroom — but the tutor arrived in April, just weeks from the school year’s end.

‘Expertise has a direct impact’

Education advocates looking for ways to improve math scores often point to training gaps in teacher education programs.

People can pursue careers as K-8 teachers in New Mexico without taking specific math courses, McWain noted.

“We fully, 100 percent, believe that expertise has a direct impact on student learning,” he said.

Data from the Public Education Department shows that out of 12 colleges in the state offering alternative licensing programs for elementary school teachers — an expedited path for people who hold bachelor’s degrees in other subjects — just four have courses on how to teach math.

In recent years, the number of teachers in the state licensed through the alternative pathway has grown. Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez estimates 95 percent of the district’s newest hires have achieved licenses through alternative programs rather than obtaining an education degree.

Requirements for teacher preparation programs are largely influenced by the Professional Practices and Standards Committee, which has advocated for the state to make basic skills exams — including one in math — optional for teachers in training. Instead, the state will allow prospective teachers to submit a portfolio demonstrating their knowledge and skills.

Council Chairwoman Debra Dirksen, associate dean of Western New Mexico University’s school of education and a former math teacher, contends the state’s math requirements are lax in comparison to those for literacy. The state assumes students in alternative licensing programs took math courses in their undergraduate studies, she added.

While the requirements might be “adequate,” Dirksen said, “maybe the approach isn’t adequate.”

Professional development for elementary school teachers who don’t specialize in math might be necessary, she said.

“Could we do a better job? Yes,” Dirksen said. “That could be done in the instruction they receive in universities; that can be done in the schools.”

She’s hopeful a new math specialist endorsement for elementary teachers to serve as mentors for colleagues will lead to improvements. Since the endorsement program began in 2020, 23 teachers in the state have pursued it.

Many educators passionate about math seek out professional development opportunities on their own to learn ways to keep kids engaged.

Nina Otero Community School fourth grade teacher Brenda Dominguez, who has worked with MathAmigos, a local nonprofit that holds math workshops for educators, calls herself a big fan of professional development.

There are complex reasons why math scores are lagging, she said, but she finds when her students are not performing well in a key concept, it always comes back to her.

“It’s not the district, it’s not the book, it’s not the student. It’s me,” she said. “So what do I need to do better?”

‘More supports in the classroom’

MathAmigos founder Lynn Bickley recommends schools bring in more tutors to work with students in the classroom and have on-site teaching coaches available to offer techniques for teachers to help students develop a better understanding of math material.

“I think teachers are like all first-line responders,” Bickley said. “They’re asked to do so much now, so to maybe give them more supports in the classroom.”

Certain groups of students, in particular, could benefit from one-on-one classroom support.

Pre-pandemic data shows statewide, just 8 percent of English language learners demonstrated proficiency in math on standardized tests. The number fell to 6 percent in Santa Fe Public Schools.

Just 8 percent of students with disabilities and 16 percent of low-income kids were proficient in math in 2019, according to state data. The state offers standardized tests in Spanish, but students don’t always receive math instruction in their native language.

Parke said she has watched students who are learning English tangle with word problems, even though they are able to solve equations.

“Kids aren’t as proficient in the language, and the language of math is its own language on top of that,” she said. “ ‘Exponential’ and ‘quadratic,’ that’s new language.”

Chavez, the Santa Fe superintendent, blamed a pandemic-era staffing crisis on a lack of classroom support staff. The district plans to hire a math coordinator, he added.

Real-life connections

The state is making a $50 million investment official believe will help to improve math proficiency through an “accelerated learning” effort guided by education nonprofit TNTP, aimed at catching students up from pandemic learning loss.

Research from the organization, founded 25 years ago, indicates low proficiency rates among some student groups often are due to teachers continually providing kids with lower-level work, causing them to fall months behind their peers. The state education department has released a plan encouraging districts to focus on grade-level learning for all students.

McWain and Vanessa Romero, an associate superintendent at Santa Fe Public Schools, say new math curricula implemented across the district in 2020-21 adheres to grade-level standards and ensures continuity.

The district is phasing in EnVision Math from Savvas Learning Co., which touts itself as “a next-generation learning company” for high school and elementary students and is piloting Taos-based MidSchoolMath in grades seven and eight. The program uses interactive storytelling — with stories often based in New Mexico — to teach math concepts.

Romero said eight of the 13 middle school math teachers in the district are now using MidSchoolMath.

The program’s use of visuals and local storytelling fall in line with what state education officials say is essential to engaging students in math.

“It’s not that the new curriculum is going to do magic things for us,” Chavez said. “I think it’s going to provide us a tool along with standards-based instruction to give us a great opportunity to move forward with proficiency in all areas.”

Costales, the state education department’s curriculum and instruction director, said making math more relevant to students’ everyday lives could help them start to see themselves as scientists and mathematicians.

“It’s actually in the application that students start to discover their math identity,” she said.

Real-life connections with math also could lead to better performance on standardized tests, Public Education Deputy Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment said. She offered examples of relevant questions:

What does 300 percent interest on a loan mean?

What is the current amount of water in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed?

“That’s what we [consider] deeper learning,” Warniment said.

Quelling fear, creating enthusiasm

Geoffrey Moon, the gifted education support specialist for Santa Fe Public Schools, isn’t concerned about low math scores. Proficiency numbers — which vary from school to school — often fail to reflect the abilities of students, who come to class with a range of backgrounds and different levels of opportunity, he said.

“The way that math learning gets packaged, interpreted for the general public, is usually in terms of the percentage of kids meeting proficiency criteria,” Moon said. “That can really skew the view of math growth and ability.”

Moon and other educators contend a lack of passion for math — or an outright dread, in many cases — often is rooted in anxiety passed on to students from their parents and teachers.

“A lot of fear from students is passed on from family or relatives: ‘Yeah, you’re getting a bad grade. It’s OK — I didn’t like math either,’ ” said Ortiz’s Parke.

That’s concerning to Warniment, who believes equipping young New Mexicans with math skills could bring big change and perhaps even shatter poverty cycles down the line.

She cited plans for a math campaign similar to Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus’ Year of Literacy, launched in August to build interest in reading among students through book drives, free libraries and more tutoring.

“There hasn’t been a good statewide initiative that focuses on math,” Warniment said.

‘We are mathematical all the time’

Susan Lemke, an instructor at Santa Fe Community College, sees in her basic algebra students, a mix of recent high school graduates and other adults, a lack of confidence in their skills, likely brought on by inadequate support throughout their schooling.

“If you talk to young kids, they often like math — a lot,” she said. “Unfortunately, so many folks develop that anxiety, that confusion, that ‘I’m not a math person’ notion.”

Like other educators, she believes more attention to math across the board — from elementary school classrooms to teacher preparation programs — could ease the high anxiety that often derails student performance.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what math is,” Lemke said. “We are mathematical all the time.”

Lemke’s students have to pass her class to earn their associate degrees.

Two of them, Josh Tario, 24, and Daniela Gonzalez, 18, said they were finally feeling confident about math after a rocky road through high school.

“Here, I’m learning,” said Tario, who hopes to become a history teacher. “I can’t tell you the last time I had a B in math class.”

Gonzales said she left high school feeling unprepared in math, in part because of teacher turnover. One year, she had four different teachers for the same math class.

In Lemke’s course, Gonzales has made a discovery.

“I’m pretty good at math,” she said.

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