. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The number of high-performing public school teachers in New Mexico has increased, according to results from annual evaluations released Monday by the state Public Education Department.

More than 34 percent of the state’s teachers earned ratings of “highly effective” or “exemplary.” That’s a 2 percentage point increase from the previous year.

Overall, around 75 percent of New Mexico teachers were graded as effective or better when it comes to their success in the classroom — a small jump from the previous year.

Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski said the number of teachers receiving the state’s highest ratings has steadily risen since the evaluation system was introduced in 2015. He also said the percentage of highly effective teachers especially has jumped in poorer school districts.

“The quality of instruction that our kids are receiving is sufficiently better,” Ruszkowski said.

Less than one-fifth of economically disadvantaged students were taught by the highest performing teachers during 2014-15, representing a 10-percent gap with their more affluent peers. That gap was cut in half as more than 30 percent of economically disadvantaged students are now taught by high-ranking teachers, according to the department.

Still, almost 1 out of every 4 New Mexico teachers earned a rating of “minimally effective” or “ineffective” — the lowest rating.

Union officials used the latest results to renew their criticisms of the evaluation system, saying entire categories of educators are either not included or have little chance at being rated exemplary. They pointed to special education teachers, counselors, librarians, therapists and others.

“What does work are policies that promote continuously improving the skills of educators performing at all levels,” said Betty Patterson, president of the National Education Association-New Mexico.

The latest results also come amid uncertainty surrounding the teacher evaluation system, which has been in place for five years.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce said in June he would immediately suspend New Mexico’s embattled teacher evaluation system if elected in November.

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Michelle Lujan Grisham has also promised an education overhaul that would include scrapping the state student test known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Teacher evaluations are based on a number of factors including mainly principal observations and student surveys.

Outgoing two-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has pushed to incorporate teacher evaluations and students’ standardized test results into a system aimed at instilling greater accountability. That has prompted protests by teachers and legal challenges from unions.

Unions challenged the system in court, as the Martinez administration negotiated unsuccessfully with lawmakers to move the evaluation rules into state statute.

The fight over evaluations looms as New Mexico lags behind most states in student academic proficiency. While the Martinez administration has cited improvements in high school graduation rates and has been trying to clamp down on poorly performing schools, waiting lists have been growing for top-performing schools and some parents have been left to compete in admission lotteries for their children.