Making sense of NV’s K-12 testing data and drops in math, reading proficiency

By: - September 17, 2021 5:45 am

Interpreting this pandemic year’s K-12 standardized test results could be an exam all on its own.

The Nevada Department of Education on Thursday released the results of the 2020-21 Smarter Balanced assessments, which the state typically gives annually to students in third through eighth grades. On the surface the results found that:

  • 26.3% of assessed students were proficient in math — down 11 percentage points from 37.5% during the 2018-19 school year (the last time the tests were given)
  • 41.4% of assessed students were proficient in English language arts — down 7.1 percentage points from 48.5% in 2018-19

But the data comes with some significant caveats that make such comparisons flawed, say education officials.

Fewer students were assessed, especially in CCSD

School districts are typically required to have at least 95% of students take the assessments, but that federal requirement was waived for the 2020-21 academic year. The standardized tests were waived entirely during the 2019-20 school year.

Nevada’s overall participation rate for the 2020-21 English language arts assessment was 68.3%. That rate was brought down by Clark County School District, which enrolls two-thirds (65.6%) of the state’s public K-12 students and had 54.1% participation.

“When participation rates decrease, so too does the quality of the inferences that can be made from the results as they are not a representative sample of enrolled students,” noted the Nevada Department of Education in its release.

CCSD’s SBAC testing occurred in-person in the spring of this calendar year, shortly after the district fully reopened its physical classrooms to younger students. Roughly half of all elementary students returned to fully in-person learning, while half opted to stick with remote instruction for what was left of the academic year.

Parents also had the ability to opt out of the testing.

Nevada’s other 16 school districts, as well as the State Public Charter School Authority, had participation rates of 86.9% or higher on the language arts assessment. Eight had participation rates higher than 95%.

Many, if not all, of those districts and schools began offering in-person learning options before CCSD -- and to a greater percentage of their students. CCSD has some of the largest class sizes in the nation, which made reopening during a pandemic that requires social distancing particularly challenging.

If you exclude CCSD, the statewide participation rate for the language arts assessment was 93.1% -- less than two percentage points shy of the pre-pandemic standard.

Participation data played out similarly on the math assessment, with Nevada’s overall 68.2% participation rate being heavily skewed by low participation in CCSD. The statewide rate excluding CCSD was 92.8%.

The Nevada Department of Education stated in its release of the results that 2020-21 results shouldn’t be considered a comprehensive analysis of student performance statewide. The department recommended not comparing this year’s data to previous ones.

How assessed students performed

Standardized test performance was down nationwide.

Aggregated assessment data presented by Nevada’s Department of Education found that language arts proficiency was down nationally three to six percentage points among elementary and middle school students, with younger grades impacted more significantly.

In Nevada districts excluding Clark, which are likely more comparable to previous years because of the higher rate of participation, the drop in language arts proficiency mirrored the national trend. With CCSD included, the drops in language arts proficiency exceeded the national average in younger grade levels. For fourth and fifth graders, the drop was double the national average.

Similarly, math proficiency was down nationally between eight and 12 percentage points, depending on grade level. Nevada districts excluding Clark mirrored that trend. CCSD’s drops in math proficiency exceeded those and ranged from seven to 24 percentage points.

These standardized test scores are typically factored into individual schools’ star ratings assigned by the state. However, this year’s results will not be used.

Opportunity gaps remain

While the Nevada Department of Education is cautioning against taking the statewide results at face value, State Superintendent Jhone Ebert added in her statement Thursday that “the assessment results can tell us how our students are doing and support us in advancing equity through our efforts to close opportunity gaps between and among student groups.”

When the assessment results are disaggregated by student race, ethnicity and specialized populations, disparities emerge.

For example, Black students had the lowest proficiency rate among racial and ethnic groups in math proficiency. Only 9.4% of Black middle school students were deemed proficient in math, compared to 23.9% of middle school students statewide. Proficiency in Hispanic/Latino students also lagged the statewide average, with only 14.9% Latino middle schoolers deemed proficient in math.

Similarly, English language arts proficiency ranged from 23.7% of Black elementary school students to 68.4% of Asian middle school students. The statewide proficiency rate was 39.8% in elementary school and 43.4% in middle school.

Students with disabilities, students who are English learners, and students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch also lagged significantly behind the state average. For example, only 2% of ELL middle school students were deemed proficient in math.

The Nevada Department of Education pointed toward the recently fully approved $1.07 billion of federal covid relief money as a boon to assisting ongoing efforts to support academic development and end those disparities.

CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara in a statement released to the media also referenced those dollars, saying it was “committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars (of American Rescue Plan) funds to address student achievement gaps resulting from the disruption caused by the pandemic.”

Jara also raised larger questions of what these standardized tests tell us, even during non-pandemic times.

“CCSD, the state, and nation must evaluate the value of these summative assessments and whether they serve the needs of our students and their academic success,” he said. “Assessment data should be readily available for our dedicated teachers to improve instruction and increase student achievement. I look forward to a conversation on the value of the statewide assessments.”

The Nevada Board of Education is expected to go over the standardized test results at their next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 30.

Additional data on assessments is available at nevadareportcard.nv.gov

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.

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