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May 3, 2015

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Stars not in alignment as state unveils its school-ranking system

20 of Clark County School District’s ‘top-performing’ schools downgraded in Nevada’s star system


Sam Morris

Students make their way to buses after classes at Del Webb Middle School Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012.

More than 100 Clark County public schools' ratings were downgraded under Nevada's new school accountability system unveiled Friday morning.

The downgraded schools included 20 "top-performing" campuses stripped of their five-star rankings and demoted to a middling three stars.

About half of Clark County School District campuses found out their district-issued rankings were off the mark when Nevada announced its new school performance framework, which grades public schools from one to five stars based mostly on standardized test scores.

The state's "school performance framework," more commonly known as the school rating or ranking system, replaces one that has been used locally by the Clark County School District for the past two years.

Nevada's school rating system, which was inspired by a similar system developed under former Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones, measures school performance on several factors:

• Growth (40 percent of rating): How much students improved on standardized tests

• Proficiency (30 percent): Students' passing rates on state tests

• Gap reduction (20 percent): How much schools were able to close the achievement gaps between different student groups

• Other indicators (10 percent): Includes average daily school attendance, and for high schools, their graduation rates and "college readiness," which is based on students' participation rates and scores in college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

The idea behind the district’s rating system is to allow parents to identify the best schools for their children, for teachers to model best teaching practices from top-performing five-star schools and for the district to be transparent and accountable to the community for its schools' performance.

"Nevada's new system of education accountability provides actionable data to drive decision-making about school supports and rewards," Rorie Fitzpatrick, the interim state superintendent, said in a statement. "(The Nevada School Performance Framework) is designed to increase accountability to yield greater student performance statewide."


Nevada's Department of Education developed the school rating system to replace the federal government's accountability system set up by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

For more than a decade, public schools nationwide were required to meet annual academic benchmarks set by President George W. Bush's signature education law. The goal was to raise testing standards each year until all students were 100 proficient in math and reading by the 2013-14 school year.

It was a lofty and noble goal, but one that educators soon found to be unattainable. As testing standards were raised higher each year, it became harder for schools to meet the law's "adequate yearly progress" measure.

Five years ago, about 60 percent of Clark County public schools made "adequate yearly progress." By 2012, just 43 percent of schools made the cut.

Critics of No Child Left Behind argued "adequate yearly progress" put too much emphasis on proficiency scores, punishing much-improved schools that made great strides in student test scores but didn't cross the proficiency bar.

With increasing numbers of "failing" schools under No Child Left Behind, states across the country were in jeopardy of losing federal education funding, which was tied to "adequate yearly progress." When President Barack Obama announced a waiver program, 48 states – including Nevada – requested relief from the controversial No Child Left Behind system.

In August, Nevada was granted a waiver from the federal government, and quickly began working on launching a new accountability system for its 17 school districts.


Nevada looked toward the Clark County School District in developing its new school accountability system.

In February 2012, Clark County became the first school district in the state to launch a school rating system – joining other major urban school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Denver and Miami.

While proponents applauded the district's transparency and innovation, critics soon began questioning why the majority of schools were considered passing under the district's system when many academic indicators were negative.

Although Clark County has one of the lowest graduation rates and standardized test scores in the nation, 85 percent of its schools had an acceptable three-, four-, or five-star status, based on the 2011-12 school rankings.

With a 62 percent graduation rate, the district should have more schools rated one- or two-stars, critics contended. They accused the School District of misleading the public and inflating its rankings to make its schools look better.

The majority of Clark County schools were rated acceptable under the district's system because it placed greater emphasis on "growth" – such as year-over-year improvement in test scores – rather than absolute proficiency measures, such as passing rates on standardized tests and graduation rates.

That meant the star ratings rewarded schools with the most improvement, not just the ones with the highest test scores or graduation rates. This system was the complete opposite of No Child Left Behind, where proficiency was the only measure that mattered.

District officials said this emphasis on "growth" would ensure schools with high academic achievement still would strive to improve its student achievement instead of resting on their laurels. They argued "growth" would reward struggling schools for the gains they've made, often for challenging student groups, such as those from low-income families.

This meant however that schools like Western High School, which saw tremendous academic improvement under the federal "turnaround" program, shot up in its rankings from two stars to four stars under the district's system.

Western was ranked in the same tier as Green Valley, Clark and Centennial high schools – all schools with much higher graduation rates and test scores. This shocked many observers, some of whom called the rankings system into question.

Examples such as Western prompted state officials to place greater emphasis on proficiency when creating Nevada's school rating system.

State leaders argued that while improvement is important, so too is whether students were passing standardized tests and graduating.

"At some point, the proficiency bar matters," Fitzpatrick said. "Growth is important, but it's only part of the story."

Under the state's new rating system, Western dropped back to a two-star ranking.


With a greater emphasis on proficiency, fewer Clark County schools are considered passing under the state's new accountability system, which graded 334 Clark County public and charter schools using 2011-12 school data.

There were 238 schools that received a passing three-, four- or five-star rating under the state's new accountability system.

That represents 71 percent of all schools, compared with 85 percent of all schools under Clark County's system.

About half of the schools received the average three-star rating, and about a fifth of schools received the top grade of five stars.

Just three schools – less than 1 percent overall – received the lowest grade of one star. These schools were Cambeiro Elementary, Explore Knowledge Charter Elementary and West Prep Elementary.

No schools received a one-star ranking under Clark County's system last year.


In the shift from the local to the state's school ranking system, 164 schools – or about half of all Clark County schools – experienced a change in their rankings.

About a third of these schools – 105 campuses – saw their district-issued ratings slide under the state's new accountability system.

Most of these schools – 83 – dropped by one star. However, 22 schools dropped by two stars.

Twenty schools fell from a top-performing five-star rating to an average three-star rating. Two schools, Tate Elementary and Western High, were demoted from four stars to two stars.

Despite these declines, there were 49 schools that saw increases in their star ratings under the state's system. Most of these schools – 42 – went up by one star.

However, there were seven schools that saw their ratings jump by two stars. They were Givens and Mack elementary schools; and Faiss, Greenspun, Hyde Park, Mannion and Tarkanian middle schools.

All of these shifts in star ratings demonstrate that by changing the weighting of certain academic indicators, schools with the exact same student achievement levels can be considered a solid four-star school or a struggling two-star school.


With about 70 percent of campuses considered "passing" and less than one percent of schools rated one star, the state's new school rating system will likely come under fire by some critics who believe more Nevada schools ought to be classified as "failing."

There is plenty of evidence to back them up.

Nevada has the lowest graduation rate among states in the nation.

The Silver State's education system is ranked dead last in the country, according to the most recent Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count survey.

And according to Education Week's "Chance for Success" index, Nevada was named the worst place in America for a child to grow up and hope to become "successful."

Fitzpatrick dismissed her critics, such as the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which has argued that education leaders are "inflating" school rankings to paint a rosier picture of the classroom.

"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Fitzpatrick said.

Three-star schools, which some have equated to a "C grade," may be considered passing, but it's not something to be happy about, Fitzpatrick said.

"A three star isn't failing, but it's not winning either," she said. "Just being in the middle doesn't make you globally competitive in the the 21st century."

Other critics, such as some teachers, argued the school performance framework focuses too much on test scores and doesn't take into account other indicators of a good school, such engaged parents and award-winning music, arts and athletic programs.

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which only looked at test scores, Nevada's new accountability system takes into account other measures of student achievement, Fitzpatrick said. In the future, other indicators, such as parental involvement, could be added into the framework, she added.

"This is still an untested model that will be improved upon in time," Fitzpatrick said. "No one should believe this will be perfect right out of the box.

"But it's perfectly better than the one we had."

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  1. The critics that want parental involvement and sports are morons. Student knowledge of English, math, reading, and science are the only criteria a school should be rated on. If you cannot read, do math, or speak proper English you will never amount to anything in this world- at least in this country. Though there are a few exceptions to every rule, exceptions cannot be used as justification for a failing system.

    Schools do not exist for sports or arts, they exist to teach students basic usable skills that will allow them to become meaningful part of society. These are largely distractions that hinder the vast majority from any sort of meaningful education.

    Any school with a majority of students not graduating should be listed as a failure under any standard. Moreover, lowering the standards bar is not an acceptable way to boost results. No Child Left Behind is proof that more money alone will not fix these problems.

  2. Comment removed by moderator. Same (or similar) comment posted on multiple stories.

  3. I guess the question is how low we can go. The state is already ranked 50th in the United States in education. I'm wondering if the state legislators can pass the standardized tests.

  4. The educational system in Nevada, like much of the country, is on life support. It is in need of a major collaborative improvement effort involving all interested and committed participants.

    The situation we find ourselves in relating to Nevada education, is the result of a collective failure on the part of all major players over decades.

    It was a failure to recognize and utilize the incredibly rapid forces of change, brought upon society by technological advancements and the effect such change has on social, governmental, business, religious, and political institutions.

    We've spent decades laying blame at the feet of communistic lefties within organized labor, rightwing conservative politico blowhards, educational administrators tinkering with formulas that guarantee nothing more than their continuing compensation levels, community business leaders interested not in the educational advancement of the young, but asset accumulation and tax implication on the bottom line, teachers more interested in planning time perrogatives than student reading and writing achievments, and political and union leadership more interested in fifteen second talking points than fifteen year follow through directives.

    Just for clarification, the above is a general statement, Nevada does have many committed and dedicated educators, administrators, politicians, labor organizers and business leaders, but unfortunately the clarifier will be taken as proof positive by those it was not meant for.

    Those advocating parental involvement, athletics, music and the arts are not "morons", unless your willing to accept the prerequiste, it takes one to know one.

    The Nevada educational problem is incredibly complicated, but solveable. To solve will require sacrifice and leadership.

    Its high time the state of Nevada experienced some.

  5. Commenter BlueBoy nailed it on several points. No truer statement than "The Nevada educational problem is incredibly complicated, but solveable. To solve will require sacrifice and leadership." The question remains: are Nevadans ready to do what it takes and allow or make it happen?

    In the past two decades, the standards and goals kept changing, as Commenter Tanker 1975 observes with, "Imagine if you will, that the teacher tells you through the school year that most of your grade is based on daily assignments, and you work very hard on those assignments, and didn't do well on the tests. At the end of the year, the principal decided that the majority of the grade was to be based on the tests. Do you think that your grade would change.

    That is exactly what happened here. The method and weight of things in the evaluation changed. As a result, the ratings of schools changed in response to the change in the evaluation system.

    A business example may be that your boss tells you that your bonus will be based on how much you sell to existing customers. You work very hard to increase sales to those customers, but don't bring in many new customers. At the end, your boss decides to change the method and says that the bonus will be based on how many new customers you brought in, not the existing customers. What is going to happen to your bonus? Will it be the same under both methods of evaluation?"

    At some point, one utilizes the process of elimination, as Commenter TomD1228 understands the nature of the problem as well, with his comparative analysis, "New York City has some of the most highly paid, highly educated teachers and educators in the country. In many respects considered the finest teachers on the east coast. The graduation rates are in the 60% bracket. Once you leave the city and go to the suburbs of NJ or Connecticut the rates are near 90% or higher. Why is that?

    It's not the teachers."

    Nevada seems to have an aura of intense energy surrounding it, with all its beauty, grandeur, focus on entertainment, and living life to the max. Being the best YOU can be doesn't seem to be a priority in Nevada, and that theme has been lost over the years. There is little accountability on a personal level, as people come and live here to get all they can out of life. Enter VALUES. Without values, society does not thrive, no matter the scope of focus.

    Blessings and Peace,

  6. Does the state of public education in Nevada accurately reflect the political, economic and cultural environment in which it exists? Before you can judge wether K-12 is good, bad or indifferent you need to identify what it is you are trying to accomplish. As a mechanic I'm not going to put an expensive made in Germany part on a made in China Geo and conversely I'm not going to put cheap parts on a 7-series BMW. Nevada has an educational system which works, not necessarily well or at a high level, but which works for the majority of students and parent and which satisfies the business and political decision-makers.

  7. TomD1228....The people who have interests, politicians, etc., appear to have concluded that the existing K-12 system is adequate for their perceived needs. They are willing to pay lip service to improvement but they are unwilling to make the necessary changes to achieve actual, measurable, long term improvement. Those steps would require changes in the culture of Nevada and in its political and economic environments. HS graduation is going on right now. As i read my Facebook page with commentary from some 150 students, mostly former but some graduating this year, I note that many are planning successful lives....accepted at college, planning missions, already working and in successful relationship, headed for the military. Some are at loose ends, some did not graduate but it is not because they were denied the opportunity, it is because they chose not to take advantage of the opportunity. Students [and their parents], however, do not have the power necessary to effect improvement, except marginally, in the schools. Only the big players have that and, notwithstanding their predictable pronunciations, they are not interested in changing the culture in which public K-12 exists.

  8. Pat and Tom:

    Your post tell me you are concerned about education. For that, I am responding.

    There are solutions to the education malaise, the powers-that-be knows them, but they do not want to do it. They believe not everyone should be educated because an educated citizenry is difficult to control. If you will remember, one powerful politician from Texas said, a sixth grade education is sufficient for the masses. Only the children of the powers-that-be should get higher education as they are the ones chosen to continue the hold on power. Hence, the state of our educational system. Many unwittingly support this status quo through the manipulation of the media (which they own).

    The disintegration of families and family values were where the decline of education began. The proliferation of smut and violence on films, TV, computerized games, music, and the media pushed the downward spiral of society irretrievably further to the point of hopelessness.

    One solution is to mitigate familial disarray through, although somewhat ironic, education. As part of my dissertation, I conducted research on the effects of teaching parents literacy strategies embedded in their daily activities at home. The participants were parents of students who were one to three years below grade level in English Language Arts. None of them had any basic understanding of academic vocabulary - language that is often found in homework, assessments, and textbooks. How can they help their children if they themselves are ignorant? Add to this challenge low cognitive functioning, unavailability of cultural stimulation, and their incapability of setting discipline boundaries for their children and even themselves, then you have a recipe for school and societal failures.

    No amount of arguments among commenters here, academia, or politicians will reform education until such time we reform families. We not only have to educate children about the corresponding three Rs (Respect, Responsibility, and Resilience) in addition to the basic 3Rs, we must also re-inculcate in parents their own responsibilities toward themselves, their children, and society.

    This can be done by refocusing our lenses to things which are more valuable than what greed can amass.

    To place the blame on teachers alone is myopic. We must extend our assessment of the situation to those who set policies and to those who influence policies. Otherwise, we forfeit our right to complain.

  9. Precisely. Why should they make it easy for anyone to get a college degree? And, who owns movie production companies and movie theaters? Thanks for strengthening my point.

    The media made us so preoccupied with 'enemies' outside the USA, that we fail to recognize our own 'homegrown' ones. There is not a darndest thing we can do about it. It's a 'game of thrones' and we are the 'expendables.'

    Oh yes, the system works. All we can do is claw ourselves up just a little above the cesspit and be happy with our lot.

  10. When we study long-term trends, we can get a much better picture of what has been, what is, and what we can predict. Over the last two decades, public schools have enrolled every student that walks through their doors. No prerequisites for learning, just the "ya all come" and we will serve you matra, thanks to Federal government laws.

    As a result, we have ignored the fact that children arrive to PRE-K or Kindergarten, without even the most basic of skills to function in an educational setting, leaving them YEARS behind before starting school. Parents clearly have NOT done their job in preparing such children: for receiving a formal education, nor for being a functional person in life. The majority of such children do not have a basic command of the English language(again, the responsibility of their parents).

    A parent is a child's first and lifelong teacher. Ultimately, a child's learning, ability to learn, and putting what was learned to work in real life, is the child's parent's responsibility. Parents control a child's surroundings and the types of input the child is subjected to; example: watching television, will it be Sesame Street or FOX's Family Life shows a child will watch? Is the parent supervising what is going on, what affects their child?

    Parents MUST be also be held accountable for their child's upbringing and education (formally and informally). Without the parent's ACTIVE participation, a child will lack guidance and the moral compass required in lifelong decision-making. When a child needs glasses, a parent should make sure that they have necessities. When a child is hungry, needs rest, needs proper attire, it is the parent's responsibility to provide and care for their child. Somehow, there is now a "disconnect" where children are now arriving to school IN NEED, which impacts their academic and social performance at school.

    Where are parental values and what are parental priorities? This is a huge piece of the puzzle in education that typically does NOT get addressed, and there is little to no accountability.

    The yearly school budget has a spot for educators and the community to set aside money for "parent involvement" at the schools. If the need is there that parents need support in parenting skills or learning the English language, these funds can go towards that. It is about helping the children when their parent is empowered.

    Budgetary cuts killed off a great deal of such support. Now, we have the opportunity to restore lost funds and assist those parents in our community who need support. This has a direct impact on their child/ our student learning.

    Blessings and Peace,