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August 27, 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

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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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