By Chris Quintana

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico's Cabinet secretary of public education, is dropping a small part of her controversial program for evaluating teachers. But Skandera says she will keep most of the system intact, continuing to mostly rely on students' standardized test scores and supervisors' observations of teachers in the classroom.

In an interview Tuesday, Skandera said school districts can stop factoring student test scores into evaluations for those who teach art, music, physical education or any other subject that isn't the focus of standardized tests.

Nothing will change for veteran teachers in "core" subjects, such as math, science, literature or English. Teachers in other areas, such as the humanities, that are related to a core subject will be evaluated on a weighted system. Skandera's agency says most teachers fall within the core subject areas.

Skandera also said those new to the teaching profession or the state will not be subject to same evaluation standards as teachers who have three years' experience in New Mexico. The change, she said, is fairer to new teachers who have not had a chance to prove themselves.

As for why she made the adjustments, Skandera said she took into consideration discussions she had with teachers, principals and superintendents statewide.

Under the old system, teachers hired in the 2014-15 academic year saw their scores supplemented with student test scores from the prior year.

Teachers have long protested these evaluations. And in June, Santa Fe teachers protested the evaluation system at a school board meeting.

A spokesman for one teachers union said the minimal change by Skandera is a step forward, not a solution.

"It provides some relief for a small minority of teachers, for whom it is important. Unfortunately, the seriously flawed system itself remains in place," said Charles Goodmacher of the National Education Association in New Mexico.

Skandera implemented the teacher evaluation system by departmental rule starting with the 2013-14 school year. State senators had declined to approve her proposal, but it got through the House of Representatives.

Teacher evaluations are based on a number of factors, including student test scores and other achievement measures; classroom observations by principals; and assessments of how teachers plan lessons, how often they're in the classroom, and student and parent surveys.

The changes Skandera is making will affect nearly 1,800 new teachers retroactively. But according to the Public Education Department, few teachers will see any difference in their evaluations this year.

For about 1,300 of these teachers, no change will be made in their rating. The Public Education Department said 31 teachers received a lower rating, and 166 moved up this year. The remaining teachers saw some change in their evaluation, but not in their overall rating.

During a period in which the state agency reviewed more than 700 queries from teachers and school districts, it found that some teachers were evaluated in the wrong category or listed as teaching the wrong grade. Also, 65 teachers said the state had incorrect information on their classroom attendance ratings. The state corrected the errors, and 21 teachers received a higher rating.

Overall, the number of "exemplary" teachers in the state increased about 1 percentage point from this year's initial evaluations from May to July. About 3.5 percent of state's 22,900 teachers received a rating of "exemplary."

"Highly effective," "minimally effective" and "ineffective" teachers remained the same at 23 percent, 22 percent and 3 percent respectively. The number of "effective" teachers dropped about half a point, to 46.8 percent.

Teachers such as Lucille Fresquez say the state evaluations are not a good gauge of performance, although she was heartened by the changes Skandera discussed.

Fresquez, a kindergarten teacher, spent nearly 30 years with the Santa Fe district. She said she retired at the end of the 2014-15 school year after she received a "minimally effective" rating.

She also has helped prepare future teachers for the classroom as an instructor at Santa Fe Community College, where she received an "exemplary" rating from her students and campus administrators.

Fresquez said she is glad to see evaluations being adjusted in public schools. She said that, had the evaluations been applied to her as a kindergarten teacher helping students new to the school system, she might have stuck around the district longer.

"We're heading in the right direction," Fresquez said.

Previously, standardized tests accounted for 50 percent of a new teacher's evaluation. Districts statewide can choose to use group testing as part of a teacher's evaluation, but that figure is now capped at 25 percent.

For teachers with three years in core subjects, the evaluation system will remain the same: 50 percent on student test scores, 25 percent on classroom observation and the remaining quarter on multiple measures that include teacher attendance and student and parent surveys.

In the Santa Fe district, the state for the 2014-15 school year rated 1.71 percent of teachers as "exemplary," 22.15 percent as "highly effective," 49.08 percent as "effective" 25.09 percent as "minimally effective" and 1.96 percent as "ineffective." Richard Bowman of Santa Fe Public Schools said the Public Education Department has yet to say if any Santa Fe teachers will see changes in their ratings.

(c)2015 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)