Samantha Nelson is the kind of teacher who sees the learning in every problem – not only for her students, but also for herself.

A few months ago, when the New Mexico Public Education Department released results of its annual K-12 standardized assessment, she was among the first of many teachers to request detailed data reports.

“As soon as I get the reports, I’m looking at them, analyzing them, and I begin thinking about how I’m going to adjust instruction,” she says. “It helps me.”

Esperanza Elementary is situated in central San Juan County, in the state’s northwest corner near the quadripoint where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. More than 60 percent of the county’s geographic area is within Native American reservations. Esperanza is one of the most diverse public elementary schools in the state: 75 percent of Ms. Nelson’s 4th grade students come from low-income families; half are Hispanic; a third are Native American. Many are English Language Learners.

Given all the social, economic, and language challenges, Esperanza might seem an unlikely place to find an enthusiastic proponent of rigorous assessments. Yet Ms. Nelson doesn’t view summative assessments as punitive; instead she considers them an invaluable support resource.

“I need to know if something is not working,” says Ms. Nelson, who explains that the detailed reports help her pinpoint areas where she needs to change her approach to teaching. “The reports tell me where kids are learning by standards. If I see lack of proficiency in a specific area, for example, in reasoning ability, I immediately begin thinking about how I’m going to adjust instruction. It helps me guide my teaching and planning.”

New Mexico administers the PARCC assessment, one of several high-quality, summative assessments comprised of content drawn from an expansive, state-created test item bank managed by New Meridian.

Many of the arguments against so-called high-stakes testing are familiar to Ms. Nelson, although she doesn’t subscribe to them. “Assessments are a necessary component of education because if you don’t know where kids are at, you don’t know where to focus your efforts,” she insists.

But what about the notion that standardized tests create a perverse incentive for teachers to teach to the test, in effect making test scores more important than the process of learning?

“I don’t know what’s going to be on the test, so I teach to my standards,” says Ms. Nelson. “My district has gone through the process of unpacking the [New Mexico state academic] standards and breaking them down into topic skills. When I go beyond the surface and provide them with a deep content understanding, they will do well on any rigorous test because they fundamentally know the material.”

“My kids say, ‘This was really easy. You’ve asked us questions that are way harder than this’,” says Ms. Nelson, beaming with pride.

Esperanza Elementary last year placed in the top 30 percent of all schools in New Mexico for overall test scores. Students at Esperanza are making more academic progress from one grade to the next compared to their peers in other schools in the state.

Esperanza’s success is due to dedicated teachers like Ms. Nelson who set high standards for every student, and use high-quality assessment data to help them reach those standards.

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