No illusions in Nevada education

Patrick Gibbons

Nevada is well known for entertainment, especially here in Las Vegas. Performing on the streets and in the resorts and concert halls are illusionists, magicians, conjurers and prestidigitators.

But such artists of illusion work elsewhere, too. Government bureaucracies and legislatures are often favorite settings. There, on education issues, magic frequently occurs — as entire subgroups of underperforming students vanish right before our very eyes and bureaucratic sorcery produces wondrous improvements in reports of education quality.

The power of illusion, whether you perform in Las Vegas or in a legislature, comes from misdirection. With slight-of-hand, illusionists misdirect your attention and then show you magical results you did not expect. On the education front, slight-of-hand regularly accompanies the federal No Child Left Behind program.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was intended to hold public schools accountable for student success by withholding federal funding unless schools were subjected to tests that measured student success. Schools were then required to have 100 percent reading proficiency by 2014 — a laudable but unrealistic goal. Each year schools were required to make Adequately Yearly Progress (AYP) toward that goal. Schools that consistently failed to make AYP were subject to sanctions.

The intent of NCLB was to not only provide an incentive for schools to improve student success, but to help parents and teachers understand how well, or poorly, students were performing. The major flaw with NCLB was that states were allowed to make their own tests and thus define "proficiency" as they saw fit.

Some states defined proficiency very liberally. Others simply dummied down their tests year after year — the better to give the illusion that their students were learning more and more.

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation recently studied this phenomenon. In the report "The Accountability Illusion," Fordham selected 36 schools from around the country and measured them by the accountability systems in 28 states. The concept was to see how schools of different types would be graded under the accountability rules of differing states.

Although the schools were exactly the same, the results differed greatly among the states. According to Fordham, Nevada ranked second lowest out of 28 states on making the AYP. Which means: Of the same 36 schools tested in each state very few would have made AYP in Nevada.

According to the Fordham Foundation

Nevada's definitions of proficiency generally ranked at or above the average compared to the standards set by the other 27 states in the study. This means that students had to perform at a higher level in order to be deemed proficient in Nevada.

Additionally, the Fordham Foundation found that Nevada was more likely to use test results from smaller samples of subgroups (special needs, minority students, English language learners, etc.) than do most other states. While this may lead to sampling errors, it also means Nevada is less likely to hide subgroups that may underperform, relative to other groups.

Not only was the Silver State more likely to include underperforming subgroups in its testing programs, but the definition of proficiency used by the state's criterion-referenced test was at or above the national average. This means that Nevada has not been one of the states that attempt to hide poor performance with illusion-producing easy tests and vanishing acts with students.

This is good news for Nevada's K-12 education system, and suggests genuine integrity in much of the state's testing programs. While Nevada's performance on tests like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) may not yet compare that favorably with other states, at least education leaders and reformers have not thrown in the towel and turned to fakery.

Maintaining high expectations for Nevada's students shows that the state is on course and that real progress and meaningful results are not out of the question.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.