By Marisa Demarco
— School board member Kathy Korte wasn’t sure how many demonstrators to expect at the Stand 4 Kids NM rally last night. “We were hoping 30 people would show up,” she said.
Instead, the grassy field in front of Del Norte High School saw between 700 and 1,000 frustrated parents, students, teachers and administrators. Evening commuters honked their horns in support as the rush hour traffic flew past the demonstration on San Mateo just north of Montgomery. “We hit the right nerve at just the right time,” said Korte, who’s been on the Albuquerque Public Schools board since 2011 and who has four children in public school. “A lot can be done by angry moms when we get together.”
The protest was organized in just a couple of short weeks by Korte and a handful of concerned parents after a town hall meeting on Oct. 1 yielded outcry over end-of-course exams, also called EOCs.
Starting this year, seniors have to pass the state-developed exams before they get their diplomas. After 12 years of hard work, “we deserve to walk the line,” said a Cibola High School senior at the rally who was worried about her spring graduation. Department spokesperson Larry Behrens said the exams will be part of all middle and high school courses, as well as some subjects in grades 4 and 5.
These tests, written by the Public Education Department, will be administered at the end of the fall and spring semesters. Teachers and school staff are not allowed to see the exams before giving them to their students. Still, the EOCs can be used in place of a final exam or in addition to the final, according to the department’s FAQ on the new tests.
School districts are able to develop their own EOCs, but they must be approved by the state’s Public Education Department.
“I’m convinced the PED thought it could slip this into the system,” Korte said. Teachers and the APS board have fought state reforms for two years, she added. “We’ve asked the tough questions, and they’ve ignored us. But they’re not going to ignore parents if enough people get involved and speak out and take their opinion to the voting both. It’s an election year next year.”
Republicans allege that Stand 4 Kids NM is organized by unions, and unions think it’s organized by Republicans, Korte said. “It’s neither. This is not driven by any agenda. What we did in two weeks was accomplished by passionate teachers and parents who felt this was our last option.”
Though the rally was organized around the EOC exams, speakers touched on more broad concerns with the Public Education Department and the state’s relationship with its schools. The loudest applause came after one speaker’s request, directed to an absent Gov. Susana Martinez: “Please put a secretary of education in place who has real experience as an educator.” She was talking about Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera, who’s been widely criticized for her lack of classroom experience.
A teacher at the beginning of her career addressed the crowd. She said she felt saddened when students revealed aspirations to become public school educators themselves, given the state of affairs today. “I’d like to wake up in the morning and not worry that I’ve made the worst decision in my life by becoming a teacher.”
Other speakers made it clear that no New Mexico teacher has a problem being evaluated, but the evaluations should be fair. APS board member Korte said the Stand 4 Kids movement has two primary concerns: over-testing and teacher evaluations. Those two issues are part of the latest effort countrywide to reform education, she said, which is funded by corporations looking to privatize school systems. “It’s about disbanding public schools and putting charters and vouchers into place,” she says. “I believe in public schools. I want our public schools to be an avenue for all kids.”
Attorney General and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Gary King attended the rally. He said in an interview with the Compass that New Mexico teachers should have the flexibility to teach kids how to be innovative and thoughtful. Instead they’re being forced to train children how to take tests: “The standardized tests are stifling innovation,” he said. “In my time in public school, I took two standardized tests: the ACT and the SAT.”
King graduated from Moriarty High School in New Mexico. He said he remembers local boards having more authority over the schools in their districts: “Curriculum was developed by local school systems.” The country as a whole won’t advance by implementing cookie-cutter exams and hoping every student “comes out the same,” he said.
Stand 4 Kids NM isn’t sure yet what its next move will be, Korte said. The grassroots movement intends to continue pushing its change.org petition and encouraging parents and voters to write letters to the governor and lawmakers. “We know it’s futile to write to PED,” she said.
If their concerns aren’t addressed, Stand 4 Kids may become what’s referred to as an opt-out movement. Nationally, groups are springing up that encourage parents and students to opt out of taking EOCs and other exams. “If enough kids don’t take the test, the PED doesn’t get its data,” Korte explains. At an elementary school in New York, more than 80 percent of parents chose to have their kids skip a standardized, multiple-choice test this month. So the school canceled the exams.
Stand 4 Kids NM might also become a “push out our incumbents who will not listen to us” effort during the next election cycle, Korte added.