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Nevada public education receives mixed reviews in new study


by Sean Whaley, Nevada Newa Bureau: An examination of how well states do in educating their low-income children generated some surprising results and shows Nevada ranking 18th in the national comparison, the authors of an ALEC report said last week.

The 16th edition of the Report Card on American Education, released by the American Legislative Exchange Council, contains a comprehensive overview of educational achievement levels for the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The report analyzes national comparative student scores in reading and math in the 4th and 8th grades, looking at both performance as well as how scores have improved over recent years. In a separate analysis, the authors also assign each state a grade based on its current education reform policies.

Matthew Ladner, one of the authors of the report, said the study examined how students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program performed in each state using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Using the scores from this same group of students in each state provides an “apples to apples” comparison of how states are doing in educating their low-income children and providing an indication of how they are doing overall, he said.

Ladner said the report tries to answer the question: “What if you had to do life over and you were going to be born as an economically disadvantaged child in the United States. Based on the nation’s report card scores in both reading and math for the 4th and 8th grade, which state would you want to be born into.”

Using this comparison of National NAEP scores, also known as the nation’s report card, Nevada performed in the top 20 states. First was Vermont, followed by Massachusetts and Florida. Ranking lowest was South Carolina.

The analysis shows that in Nevada scores for both subjects in both grades saw improvement from 2003 to 2009.

Ladner said the results generated some surprises, such as the inclusion of Florida in the top 10, a state that has a high percentage of minority students in the free and reduced lunch program. Florida has engaged in a number of “very vigorous” education reforms, he said.

Report co-author Andrew LeFevre said the report also makes it clear that money is not the key ingredient to improved student performance.

The District of Columbia and Florida both spent about the same amount of money per child, yet Florida ranked 3rd and D.C. ranked 26th in the study, he said.

The report also provides a grade on how well states are doing in the area of education reform. Nevada garnered a C grade, with the highest, a B+, going to Florida. Vermont had the lowest score, a D.

Thirteen factors went into the reform grade, with Nevada earning a C on state academic standards and its charter school law, a “no” on private school choice, a D- on identifying high quality teachers and a D on retaining effective teachers. The state’s best grade, a B-, came for its ability to remove ineffective teachers.

Despite the fact that it ranked in the top 20 on improvement on the national test scores, Nevada, as do all the other states, have a lot of room for improvement, LeFevre said.

“The good and bad news of the NAEP scores is that yes, Nevada ranked 18th. . .” he said. “The bad news about the NAEP data is you still have 75 percent of your students that are not proficient.”

Ladner also noted that the states are graded on a curve, so Nevada’s 18th ranking is relative.

“There is so much room for improvement that we all ought to be striving forward regardless of where we end up in these rankings,” he said.

ALEC is the nation’s largest nonpartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators.

The report comes out as education has taken center stage this week in the first debate between the two leading party candidates for governor: Democrat Rory Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval. In a one-hour debate Sunday, Sandoval came out in support of a voucher school program in Nevada, where parents could use state tax dollars to send their children to private schools.

Reid opposed the idea, saying only the wealthy could afford to take the state funding and augment it with enough personal funds to pay for a private school education. Reid has come out in support of letting parents “vote with their feet” by taking children out of poorly performing public schools and placing them in other public schools, including charter schools.

Both candidates say also they want to protect public education in the upcoming budget, despite the fact that the state faces a shortfall of as much as $3 billion in the amount of revenue expected to be needed to fund state programs and public education.

Nevada recently lost out on its application for as much as $160 million in federal grant funds to improve student achievement through the “Race to the Top” program. Nevada did not make the cut as a finalist.


Audio clips:

ALEC report co-author Matthew Ladner says the study looks at how well low-income students in each state performed on standardized tests:

090110Ladner1 :26 born into, right.”

ALEC report co-author Andrew LeFevre says money is not the gauge for student achievement:

090110LeFevre1 :17 we’re looking for.”

LeFevre says Nevada does well in comparison with other states, but still has large percentage of students who are not proficient:

090110LeFevre2 :29 doing that well.”

Ladner says all states should continue to work to improve student achievement regardless of ranking in the report:

090110Ladner2 :29 in these rankings.”

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