Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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Nevada schools continue to rate poorly, but officials aren’t standing still

CCSD School Librarian

Christopher DeVargas

Ryan Dwyer, a full-time teacher and certified CCSD Librarian, teaches class at Kay Carl Elementary School, Friday May 13, 2016.

While not last on every list, Nevada’s public education system ranks in the bottom dozen of states in the most recent national analyses by Education Week, U.S. News & World Report and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Public officials and residents who decry the state’s education system use the rankings as evidence for their disapproval. But Nevada educators say the broad range of analyses helps identify where students need the most help.

The Clark County School District’s efforts to improve student achievement are ongoing in a “proactive approach,” said Kristine Minnich, assistant superintendent for assessment, accountability, research and school improvement.

“Every data point is an opportunity for us as a district to celebrate what we’re doing well and provides us areas of opportunity so we know where to focus our resources,” Minnich said earlier this month as the district prepared for the new school year starting Monday.

Clark County’s new superintendent, Jesus Jara, says he wants to align curriculum throughout the district’s schools, not only as a cost-saving measure by opening up the possibility of bulk discounts on educational materials, but to allow the district to briefly assess student performance each quarter using uniform standards. He said teachers would be able to measure progress and better direct resources, and students would have consistency from school to school.

“Testing to test doesn’t work, just to continue to test kids to then come out with a number,” Jara said. “Unless we’re going to drive the instruction.”

Education and politics

With its high cost to taxpayers and its low ranking and lasting impact on hundreds of thousands of youngsters, Nevada’s education system provides fuel for political campaigns and is likely to remain a major issue for the state’s next top leader, just as it was for Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Steve Sisolak, Nevada’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, has pointed to the recent national rankings as evidence that reforms are needed, while the campaign of Adam Laxalt, the Republican nominee, looks to Education Week as well as the state Department of Education’s lists of so-called shining and rising star schools. The district expects to release its new star ratings Sept. 15.

Sisolak said he would donate his governor’s salary to education groups until the state’s schools were on track.

“I’m committed to putting resources in the classroom so that our teachers can finally get the support that they deserve,” Sisolak said in February, “because we cannot continue to go year after year ranked at the bottom of every single list.”

Laxalt’s campaign espouses a plan for improving education that includes state support to help parents send kids to private school. Nevada ranks high on one analysis by a group that supports limited government and gives extra weight to private and charter schools in its assessment.

“Nevada schools are the worst in the country according to the (Education Week) Quality Counts survey,” said Parker Briden, Laxalt’s campaign spokesman. “This is certainly an issue in this race.”

Nevada has taken many steps to improve education, such as the Legislature adopting the commerce tax in 2015 with the intent of broadening the state’s tax base and boosting state spending on public schools, and changing graduation requirements in 2013.

Nevada also phased out high school proficiency exams and started requiring a “college and career readiness” assessment for 11th-graders as a result of legislation passed in 2013. While National Assessment of Educational Progress exams are no longer administered to Nevada high school students, juniors are required to take the ACT. Passing the ACT is not a graduation requirement. Nevada is among the 25 states that use either the ACT or SAT for high-schoolers, and some of those do not administer the test to all students.

Nevada has the lowest composite ACT test score nationwide, at 17.8 (of a possible 36) with virtually all of its high school juniors participating. New Hampshire students ranked first, with a composite score of 25.5, with 18 percent of its graduates tested. New ACT results for 2018 are expected by early fall.

Rankings and methods

Education Week’s 2018 Quality Counts report gives Nevada and New Mexico D’s, the lowest grades in the country. Overall grades take into account the “chance for success,” school finance and K-12 achievement.

CCSD spokesman David Roddy said some reports used methodologies that take into account elements that the school district cannot control. Quality Counts, for example, looks at factors such as family income in its “chance for success” analysis.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Nevada 44th overall nationally in education, equally weighing higher education and pre-K-12. The report puts the state 49th nationally in pre-K-12 education and 13th nationally in higher education, measuring qualities such as enrollment, test results and high school graduation rates.

Jara says he wants the Legislature to address per-pupil funding and classroom sizes, which can be factors in student achievement, as well as assessment rankings. Education Week, for example, uses per-pupil funding in its analysis. Nevada was 48th nationally in per-pupil funding in 2017, according to NAEP.

“We have to change how we fund schools in Clark County,” Jara said.

Nevada lawmakers in 2017 approved a one-time weighted funding formula, providing more funding for students who need it most, but the program is not permanent. Jara said the state had used the same funding formula since 1967, when Clark County’s schools were rated among the top in the country.

The Legislature’s interim education committee recently discussed a draft report of a study on adequate funding that recommends the state increase the $5,897 it spent per pupil for the 2017-2018 school year to more than $9,000, with higher amounts for at-risk kids, English language learners and special education students.

“We really need to build a coalition or an effort in Carson City around changing the funding formula,” Jara said. “We have 17 studies that tell us that we don’t fund education appropriately, and the inequities. Seventeen. We don’t need another study. What we need to do is take action.”

Fixing the funding formula would also help the district pay teachers more, Jara said. The district has been in legal battles with teachers over pay raises. The district has suggested a one-time 3 percent boost for the five major bargaining groups, excluding Jara, who said contract negotiations was something the district “absolutely” could improve on.

Jara said the district also was looking at how much it would cost to bring the state’s class-size reduction program, first approved in the 1989 Legislature, to all grades. The 2017 Legislature slated nearly $300 million over the biennium to cover first-, second- and third-graders in the program from 2017-2019.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, called The Nation’s Report Card, is administered to Nevada fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading. In 2017, compared to the rest of the country, the state’s fourth-graders had the sixth-lowest average score in both math and reading; and eighth-graders had the ninth-lowest average score in reading and the 11th lowest in math.

As of 2017, CCSD has had access to district-level National Assessment of Educational Progress results so that it can compare itself to other large school districts in the country, Minnich said. The first year of data will provide a baseline for future comparisons, she said, also noting that a representative sample of students take this assessment rather than the entire student body.

“It does not test all grades nor all students,” Minnich said. “It’s really meant to be a sample to gauge how well students and schools and districts are doing.”

Common Core

New testing associated with the move to Common Core is more rigorous and brought along a slate of new professional development opportunities to ensure teachers were ready to prepare their students, Minnich said.

Nevada adopted Common Core, a set of standards created by national groups of governors and education leaders, in October 2010, shortly before Sandoval won his first term as governor. The Smarter Balanced Assessments for third- through eighth-graders measure achievement based on Common Core, which is known here as the Nevada Academic Content Standards.

CCSD looks to the new assessment, which got off to a rocky start in Nevada in 2015 with platform difficulties causing problems for students, as well as National Assessment of Educational Progress data and end-of-course exams to track improvement and achievement, Minnich said.

“It informs not only the instruction that happens in the classroom,” she said. “You’re identifying where the gaps are in a student’s learning.”

Bright spots

While reports often rank Nevada near the bottom, CCSD does look for “bright spots” as well as areas for improvement in student achievement data, Minnich said.

Graduation rates and pass rates on Advanced Placement tests are two of those bright spots, she said.

Nevada’s graduation rates, considered as part of a districtwide accountability report, went up in Nevada among four-year cohorts from 2013-2014 to 2015-2016. Nevada’s graduation rate in 2015-2016 was nearly 74 percent, and roughly 81 percent of the class of 2017 graduated. Final 2018 graduation rates are expected to be released in the winter.

More students are graduating statewide, and CCSD high school students are increasingly earning college credit through AP courses before they get their diploma. The district raised its pass rate on these exams 2.3 percent, to 49.5 percent, according to a July 31 news release.

Those gains were present across all demographics, but student achievement gaps do still remain for groups such as English language learners. Minnich said testing was part of what helped the district address these disparities and intervene.

“Are our ELL students performing at a rate that our non-ELL students are doing? And if not, then how do we prioritize our resources as a district to narrow that gap that we may see?” Minnich said. “So every data point is used to increase our student achievement.”

Minnich said student performance on tests helped inform instruction, but officials acknowledge it’s one piece of data representing one point in time. Data throughout the year available to teachers and other district officials help show how well students may do in May when they take the Smarter Balanced Assessments, for example, she said.

“At the district, we don’t wait for these reports to come out to gauge how well we’re doing,” she said. “ … When the test results come out, we should have an idea what we’re looking at because we’d been monitoring that progress all along. But it doesn’t minimize once we get those results. Then the analysis starts.”