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April 16, 2014

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Education:

Report raises questions about Nevada’s school accountability under No Child Left Behind waiver

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Leila Navidi

Students line up with their parents to receive free iPads inside the gymnasium at Ed Von Tobel Middle School in Las Vegas on Thursday, September 19, 2012. The Clark County School District’s “e3: Engage, Empower, Explore Project” provided iPads for all students and teachers at five Title I middle schools.

Van Tobel Middle School

More on Nevada’s lowest-performing schools:

To receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind, Nevada had to identify its lowest-performing schools and come up with a plan to turn them around.

These “focus” and “priority” schools are among the bottom 15 percent of schools in Nevada, according to standardized test scores. Nevada identified these low-performing schools by examining how well a campus improved its students’ test scores, particularly among low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities.

“Focus” schools are between 5 percent and 15 percent of the worst-performing schools in the state. “Priority” schools are in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

“Focus” schools will receive additional resources and support for a minimum of three years. The school must examine its test score data, determine why they are low and develop a plan to improve, according to Nevada’s No Child Left Behind waiver.

“Priority” schools must implement a “priority turnaround plan,” which could include replacing its principal and staff, according to the waiver.

The Clark County School District has 20 “focus” and “priority” schools:

"Priority" Schools:

• Canyon Springs High School

• Chaparral High School

• Del Sol High School

• Desert Pines High School

• Mojave High School

• Valley High School

• Western High School

"Focus" Schools:

• Craig Elementary School

• Diaz Elementary School

• Fitzgerald Elementary School

• Imagine 100 Elementary Charter School

• Kelly Elementary School

• Lowman Elementary School

• Paradise Elementary School

• Petersen Elementary School

• Reed Elementary School

• Roundy Elementary School

• Squires Elementary School

• Tom Williams Elementary School

• West Prep

Two years ago, the federal government considered Von Tobel Middle School a failing school.

Only a third of Von Tobel students were proficient in math, and just a quarter of its pupils passed Nevada's reading assessment.

Under the stringent accountability system in the federal No Child Left Behind law, Von Tobel fell short of making “adequate yearly progress” in student test scores. As a result, the northeast valley school was classified by the U.S. Education Department as “in need of improvement.”

In fact, Von Tobel had been labeled “in need of improvement” for more than a decade after failing year after year to meet federal academic benchmarks.

That is, until last school year.

In 2012, Nevada received a waiver from No Child Left Behind and adopted a new accountability system. Instead of grading schools passing or failing by whether they made “adequate yearly progress,” schools were rated one star to five stars with five stars being the best.

Suddenly, Von Tobel switched from a school “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind to a school rated an average three stars under Nevada’s new School Performance Framework.

Von Tobel isn’t the only “failing” Nevada school given a pass under the state’s new accountability system, according to a recently released national report.

New America Foundation, a Washington-based education policy group, compared the number of failing schools Nevada had before and after receiving its waiver from No Child Left Behind.

In the 2011-2012 school year, Nevada had 225 schools — including Von Tobel — deemed failing under No Child Left Behind. After Nevada received its waiver, the state Education Department named just 33 schools as failing.

These so-called “priority” and “focus” schools are among the bottom 15 percent of schools in the state when it comes to passing rates and year-over-year improvement on standardized tests.

Only six schools that were failing under No Child Left Behind were considered failing under the Nevada’s School Performance Framework, according to the New America Foundation report. The vast majority of Nevada schools that were considered failing under No Child Left Behind — 198 schools — no longer have that distinction.

The foundation’s report has prompted newly appointed State Superintendent Dale Erquiaga to review Nevada’s fledgling school accountability system. Erquiaga, who is about 100 days into the job, said he was troubled by the implications of the report.

“We still need to look further into the report’s data to see if schools that have been left off the old system’s restructuring lists are still receiving sufficient supports to improve student achievement,” Erquiaga said in a statement. “We want to know more about why a school made one list (of schools in need of improvement) and not the other.”

•••

In August 2012, the U.S. Education Department granted Nevada a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the controversial 2001 law that mandated all students be proficient in math and reading by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Critics decried No Child Left Behind’s lofty goal as unrealistic and unattainable. The law threatened draconian cuts to federal school funding as more and more schools failed to achieve ever-increasing benchmarks to meet No Child Left Behind’s 100 percent proficiency target.

Facing intense pressure, the federal government began allowing states to apply for waivers, which exempt them from No Child Left Behind’s rigorous standards. So far, 42 states — including Nevada — have received these waivers.

Under its waiver, the Silver State created a new system of school accountability, grading schools from one to five stars. Low-performing one- and two-star schools will receive more oversight — and in many cases, more funding and resources — from local school districts and the state education department.

The Nevada School Performance Framework looked at the absolute proficiency rates of its students (the passing rates on standardized tests) and their relative “growth” from year to year (how much students improved on tests from year to year).

Instead of punishing schools if a group of students — such as English-language learners — failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind, Nevada’s new accountability system acknowledged the efforts of schools whose students fell short of proficiency but made incredible strides toward it.

However, the New America Foundation report questions the rigor of states’ new school accountability systems, particularly Nevada’s.

Two of three “failing” schools under No Child Left Behind are considered “passing” under states’ new accountability systems, according to the nonprofit foundation’s study of more than 20,000 schools nationally.

Among the 16 states New America Foundation studied for its report, Nevada had the sharpest decline — an 88 percent drop — in the number of “failing” schools after switching from the federal to the state’s accountability system.

The sudden decrease left Anne Hyslop scratching her head.

“It’s confusing for everybody,” said Hyslop, New America Foundation’s policy analyst and the report’s author. “Why are some schools on the (failing) list and others not?”

Hyslop said she was worried about the fate of the 198 low-performing schools in Nevada that no longer were considered “failing.” Nearly 40 percent of these schools had been missing performance targets under No Child Left Behind for six years or longer, and they were undergoing serious state-level interventions, including staffing changes, she said.

“No Child Left Behind had a lot of problems by identifying a ton of schools for improvement — more than what states could improve,” Hyslop said. “States didn’t have the resources or manpower to get dramatic improvement, so it makes a lot of sense to focus accountability on a limited number of schools.

“But (under the waivers) I’m concerned we’re not focusing on the right schools. I’m concerned there are some low-performing schools out there that aren’t getting the attention they need.”

•••

As a stipulation for receiving a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the U.S. Education Department required that states identify their lowest-performing schools.

These schools, which receive federal funding to help students from low-income families, must fall in the bottom 15 percent of schools, education officials said.

These so-called “focus” and “priority” schools would receive additional turnaround resources over a minimum of three years. The worst schools — the “priority” schools — may receive more radical interventions, such as replacing principals and teachers, to improve students’ test scores. With the additional help comes oversight, including regular site visits from state and local officials and intensive student data analyses.

However, there’s a growing debate over whether the bottom 15 percent of schools is the “right” number of failing schools a state should target for turnaround measures.

In a state like Massachusetts, generally lauded for having good schools, 15 percent of failing schools could be the “right” number. However, in a state like Nevada, which has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation, 15 percent might be too small and miss a number of struggling schools.

“What you’re essentially doing is setting up a system where a set number of ‘failing’ schools must be identified,” Hyslop said. “States are now focusing on the worst 15 percent of schools. What if you’re a low-performing school, but not part of the worst 15 percent?”

The 15 percent threshold isn’t firm and represents the minimum of low-performing schools a state could identify, Hyslop said. That means Nevada could have identified more “focus” and “priority” schools.

The task of determining the bottom 15 percent of schools falls on states' new accountability system. However, Nevada’s star-rating system has been criticized for rewarding schools that show great improvement but still have a large percentage of students failing state exams — schools like Von Tobel.

Former state superintendent Jim Guthrie, who signed off on Nevada’s No Child Left Behind waiver application, criticized Nevada’s star-rating system in the wake of the New America Foundation report. The Clark County School District alone should have “hundreds of schools in need of improvement,” he said.

“Any accountability system which comes up with only 33 schools needing improvement is just wrong on its face,” Guthrie said. “In the lowest-performing state in the nation, it just doesn’t add up.”

•••

In Clark County, more than half of its 357 schools were deemed “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind.

After Nevada received its waiver, 20 Clark County schools were labeled “focus” or “priority” schools by the state Education Department. But, this doesn’t mean only 20 schools are being held accountable for student achievement, according to district officials.

Under Nevada’s School Performance Framework, there are 239 Clark County schools that are rated one, two and three stars. All one- and two-star schools and some three-star schools undergo a comprehensive curriculum audit, where central administrators look at what programs and lessons are working and what are not.

All Clark County schools are responsible for improving test scores and ensuring that students become proficient in math, reading, science and writing, officials said. The lowest-rated schools receive more support through professional development, test data analyses and regular check-ins to ensure they become top-performing schools, officials added.

The 20 “focus” and “priority” schools are “held to greater accountability” by the state Education Department, said Leslie Arnold, the district’s assistant superintendent of assessment, accountability, research and school improvement. There are biannual school visits and midyear academic benchmarks that schools must hit.

“When the state comes in, it’s not a 30-minute walk-through,” Arnold said. “They spend the majority of the day at the school, going over the budget and talking with teachers and principals.”

Arnold said she didn’t know how many schools should be targeted, whether it’s the bottom 15 percent of schools or more. The “right” number of “focus” and “priority” schools should depend on the resources and time a state can devote to turning low-performing schools around, she said.

“It’s hard to say what that exact number should be,” Arnold said. “I would go for fewer (schools) and getting it right. We’re not going to rest until we get all of our schools into the four- and five-star (rating).”

Erquiaga said he planned to review the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver this year to “determine if we can improve it.” The state can submit waiver revisions — which might include more schools targeted for turnaround interventions — to the federal government later this year.

“Identifying schools in the accountability framework is only one step in improving student achievement,” Erquiaga said in a statement. “I am committed to making the changes necessary.”

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