The right way to measure success

Karen Gray

Do Nevada students need to take one more test?  They do if we want to know how well they compare to other students across the nation.

We hear complaints about "all the tests" that Silver State students have to take, but there's one important test Nevada has suspended that needs to be reinstated. 

Nevada, after all, recognizes its students will have to compete — whether in college entrance exams, for scholarships or in the job markets. That's why the Nevada Legislature legally requires all students in grades four, seven and 10 to take a norm-referenced test (NRT) comparing the achievement of Nevada students with that of students across the nation. Such testing allows us to ascertain if Nevada students, schools and districts are above or below the national average — and if below, to start remedying the situation.

However, in its December 2008 Special Session, the Nevada Legislature followed the recommendation of State Superintendent of Instruction Keith Rheault and suspended NRT. According to Rheault, suspending the tests for the 2008-09 school year was to yield a $476,000 saving to the state Department of Education. During the current legislative session, it is expected that testing will continue to be suspended, if not eliminated, in order to save the NDE approximately $900,000 a year.

What has norm-referenced testing told us? Well, Clark County School District fourth graders have consistently scored just at or above the national average across the board in reading, language and math from the 2005-06 through the 2007-08 school years. Fourth-grade rankings ranged between the 49th and 57th percentiles for all tested areas and years. At the other end of the spectrum, the tests tell us that CCSD 10th graders since the 2005-06 school year have been well below the national average in reading, at the 39th percentile.

The CCSD reports reveal that student math scores have declined as students have advanced in grade. In 2007-08, the last year Nevada tested under the NRT, Clark County seventh graders had, since the fourth grade, dropped 10 percentiles, from the 54th to the 44th. Likewise, 10th graders had dropped five percentiles since the seventh grade, from the 44th percentile to the 39th percentile. This pattern is the same for CCSD reading scores.

Many educators and administrators across the state argue that elimination of this test is acceptable, because it allows more classroom time to prepare for the tests used to determine adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). 

Most people are familiar with the AYP tests mandated under NCLB. These tests, called criterion-referenced tests, measure how well a student performs against set criteria or an educational standard. These tests can determine if a student has a basic, proficient or advanced understanding of the curriculum being taught. Under NCLB, each state gets to set its own educational standard against which students are to be tested — and that standard can be as easy as the politicians of the state decide.

Thus, just as important as knowing how a student performs on those state education standards is knowing how well Nevada students compare with students across the nation. If Nevada students are to rise to the top, they need to be proficient in the state's curriculum, but that curriculum must also make Nevada students competitive with the rest of the nation. And adequate yearly progress testing in Nevada cannot provide that national information. 

As the Nevada Department of Education says, "There is currently no other test [outside NRT] that we give that compares National Percentiles across the nation." 

As another justification for eliminating the NRT, department officials point to Nevada's participation in a third test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). However, according to NDE officials, "What [NAEP] doesn't provide are data for comparison below the state level." Furthermore, Nevada law under NRS 389.015 states that Nevada's school districts must administer the NRT on reading, mathematics and science in grades four, seven and 10. The NAEP test does not fulfill this legislative mandate since it takes a random sample of students across the state, rather than test all students within each district, and tests only in grades four and eight on mathematics, reading, science and writing.

Nevada legislators have long recognized the advantages to knowing our national ranking and have carefully crafted an accountability system to monitor Nevada's performance on local and national standards. By suspending norm-referenced testing, Nevada has already altered the state of our national ranking, as the longitudinal validity of future NRT test results will be affected.  And Nevada will have to pay for additional studies to fill the gaps caused by this lapse in testing.

If Nevada is ever to improve its public education system, the state must be able to clearly see how well its students compare with their national peers.

Suspending norm-referenced testing would mean putting on a blindfold — or worse.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.