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May 22, 2015

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Education:

School District sees big drop in test scores

Officials attribute decline to tougher test, higher passing standards

Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

Pedro Martinez

Pedro Martinez

Carolyn Edwards

Carolyn Edwards

Clark County School District officials attributed a significant drop in test scores this year to a more rigorous test and higher proficiency standards.

The School District on Thursday announced results of the 2011 Criterion Reference Test and the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam that showed a drop in reading test scores for all grades except fifth grade.

The CRT is a benchmark test given to students in third to eighth grades. The NHSPE is a standardized test given to all Nevada students starting in grade 10; students must pass the exam to graduate high school.

Reading proficiency at the middle and high school levels showed the most significant drops, from about 20 percentage points in seventh and eighth grades to 30 percentage points in 10th grade.

There was an average drop of 20 points on the eighth grade reading test, Superintendent Dwight Jones said. Only 48 percent of 10th grade students taking the NHSPE passed the reading section on their first try.

Sue Daellenbach, the assistant superintendent of assessment, accountability, research and school improvement, attributed the drop in reading scores to a more difficult test and more stringent passing standard.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Nevada English Language Arts standards were revised, and those changes were implemented for the first time this past school year, Daellenbach said.

Students read longer passages on this year’s test and answered questions that tested their analysis of the passage.

For example, a question on this year’s reading test might have asked, “What is the most important turning point in the passage?”

In previous years, students were assessed on reading comprehension. A question on a previous year’s tests might have asked, “What is the main idea of paragraph two?”

“That’s an entirely different type of question, where students have to make their own evaluation about what they read,” Daellenbach said. “That’s a big step, from finding a concrete answer in a couple of paragraphs...The rigor is much higher than in previous years.”

Because the test standards changed, the Nevada State Board of Education raised the “cut scores” — the passing score — on the NHSPE in May. The cut score went up to 300 points, from 251. The higher passing grade might explain the 30 percentage point drop in the 10th grade reading passage rate, Daellenbach said.

The School District would have experienced a similar drop in math scores two years ago if it weren’t for “transitional cut scores.”

The state lowered the passing grade on the math section for three years to help the district transition to the higher math standard, Daellenbach said. This year’s test scores would be 20 points lower if it weren’t for the “transitional cut scores.”

“Somebody described it as a wound and a Band-Aid,” she said. “In reading, we just pulled it off. With math, we’re kind of easing it off.”

Next year, Nevada will move to an even higher testing standard adopted voluntarily by 43 states called the Common Core Standards.

Reading and math standards will again rise, from analysis of reading passages and solving math equations to synthesizing short essays and solving math word problems.

The Nevada State Board of Education is participating in a regional National State Board of Education conference in early August to determine how to implement the new Common Core Standards in state curricula and assessments.

Daellenbach said the School District is working to ready teachers and students for the higher standards, holding summer workshops.

“It’s a big difference from bubbling (in an answer) to writing an essay,” Daellenbach said. “I imagine it’ll have some impact, but I don’t know how much.”

Jones reiterated his support for the new Common Core Standards, which he said would make students “ready by exit.” He warned, however, that “it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for teachers” who may have to change their syllabi to teach to the new standard.

He also pledged more help for teachers and a renewed focus on literacy in the early grades. Under his reform plan, Jones proposed implementing a benchmark test in reading at the first grade.

“Youngsters who are showing early signs of struggle, if we intervened right then, it’ll be cheaper and their chance for success will be greater,” Jones said. “Those students will be stronger readers, which will make a tremendous difference when kids get to middle school.”

School District officials said they were disappointed by this year’s test scores, but maintained they cannot be compared to scores from previous years because of the new standards.

Officials also said the drop in test scores is not limited to the Clark County School District.

“This is not a Clark County issue,” said Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Pedro Martinez. “This is a statewide issue, because the entire state dropped. It’s not just us.”

There was also some good news, officials said. Elementary school reading test scores remained steady despite the higher standards.

“Let’s celebrate the fact that our fifth-graders went up an average of 10 points across the district with a new exam that’s much more rigorous,” Martinez said, adding that he is still concerned about eighth-grade literacy. “I think that’s something to be optimistic about.”

School Board President Carolyn Edwards was more somber in her assessment of the test scores.

“We need to not lose sight of the fact that although there are reasons why the scores are lower, they are lower, and we have a greater distance to go than we had before,” she said. “It is imperative at this point that we move forward, that we reach achievement for every single student in our district.

“No excuses,” she said. “Let’s just get the job done.”

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