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Nothing's Average Anymore for Clark County Students

Ohanian Comment: Here's what happens when you let your school district be run by Achieve and Education Trust rhetoric: You decide to "set the bar high for everyone"--and then let kids decide in their senior year if they want to go to college.


And how many of these kids will make it to their senior year and how many will be pushed to the wayside by the high bar? Achieve and Education Trust are never around to answer those questions.

Read about these Business Roundtable connections and conspiracies in Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian (Heinemann) Available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble from this website.

If the three paragraphs highlighted in the article below don't make you scream and/or weep, check your pulse. ETS has designed a tracking system that will kill any semblance of the teacher as professional who nurtures children. The Test Rules.

"There must have been a mistake," 14-year-old Cristina Hernandez thought to herself when her teacher told her she had been chosen for a new college-track program starting this year at Spring Valley High School.

No, her teacher reassured her -- there was no mistake. Hernandez would be one of a small group of freshmen taking part in the program.

"I get mostly B's and C's -- I thought a lot of kids would want to be in the program and there would be too many with better grades than me," said Hernandez, a Clark County student since kindergarten. "I was surprised they picked me."

It turns out it was Hernandez's "average" status that made her a candidate for the program. Not a remedial student or a typical high achiever, she lingers with thousands of other district students in the middle -- a group that has so far resisted districtwide efforts to boost their grade point averages, test scores and interest in higher education.

Facing intense pressure from the public, the state and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Clark County School District is in the middle of a massive overhaul to try to improve student performance.

Over the last three years programs have been put in place to catch students who trail their peers in reading or math, bolster those for whom English is a foreign language and provide full-day kindergarten programs for at-risk youngsters.

The district is also rolling out a new program this fall that will test every student from kindergarten to eighth grade every 12 weeks to assess student and teacher performance.

"I can't overstate how big a step this is going to be for us," Clark County schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia said of the new testing program. "This is totally going to change the way we conduct the business of education."

School performance is being watched closely. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires improvement in student performance or schools face sanctions, up to the takeover of their campuses by the state or federal education departments.

Many members of the state Legislature have been highly critical of the state's education system and have questioned why Nevada's students continue to trail their peers in other states on standardized tests.

The Silver State's public schools will need to show the Legislature some evidence of improvement before facing lawmakers in budget hearings next year, said Bob McCord, assistant professor at the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"The Legislature is going to be looking for demonstrations that schools are raising student performance across the board," said McCord, a retired district administrator. "This is an important opportunity for Clark County (School District administrators) to show they've come up with solutions that are actually helping teachers be more effective and (helping) more kids reach their potential."

By the numbers, Nevada's education system doesn't rank well in the nation. The graduation rate is one of the lowest in the country while the dropout rate is among the highest.

The state has seen some improvement on statewide and national standardized test scores and raised the overall graduation rate, but the increases have been slight.

Garcia said people don't want to hear about the hopeful trends on the horizon, they want immediate proof in the form of hard numbers.

In his four years on the job the district has improved programs for struggling students, Garcia said, which has paid off in higher test scores among minorities, special education students and children with limited proficiency in English.

But the district's average students haven't improved much. Scores on state and national standardized tests have fluctuated a percentage point or two for years but shown no upward progression.

"It's frustrating," Garcia said. "We see good gains when we start breaking down students into smaller groups, but it's time to take a good look at the big picture and ask ourselves, 'What should we be doing that we're not doing?' "

The answer lies, in part, in the middle -- the average student. Raise their scores and the district's scores go up.


To kick-start the test scores, the district is spending $1 million this school year to run its new testing program, which includes training for staff, quarterly student testing and software that analyzes and tracks results.

The district is buying the program from ETS, one of the nation's largest providers of educational testing services. So far only a handful of districts in the nation have tried this particular program.

Under the program, teachers will have to follow a list of "power standards" -- a combination of the required state curriculum and what the federal education department recommends students know.

Every 12 weeks students will be given 30-question "benchmark" tests. Diagnostic Software will measure not only how well students have grasped the standards, but which teachers are having the most success and what groups of students are falling behind.

The curriculum will be taught in a particular order, which is intended to help the district's students who switch schools.

In 2003-04, 35.5 percent of the district's students changed campuses at least once during the year. At some schools student turnover topped 50 percent.

"With our transiency rate, consistency is essential," Garcia said. "Students who move around a lot are going to be less likely to repeat material or (may) miss out on chunks of the curriculum altogether."

The backbone of the program is that teachers are told up front what students need to know and are given immediate feedback on whether they are actually learning the required material, said Leslie Pulliam, who created the program with her husband, Barry, six years ago.

"The program will tell teachers -- by name -- which four kids need to review the multiplication tables," said Pulliam, a veteran educator whose system and company were bought by ETS earlier this year. "It's about instruction being more focused. You don't want to wait until the end of the year and send a kid to summer school or let the next grade's teacher inherit the problem. You do something about it now."

Clark County administrators have chosen to implement the program slowly. Last year was spent training principals who in turn trained teachers. This year all students in kindergarten through eighth grade will take the three benchmark tests.

At the high school level the focus will be on practice rounds of the state proficiency test. District officials hope to add benchmark testing to the high schools within the next two years, provided the program works effectively in the lower grades.

Pulliam said she expects to see improvement in student performance within the first academic year. By 2006 there should be improvement at every school that's using the model correctly, Pulliam said.

As evidence that her projections for Clark County aren't unreasonable, Pulliam points west to the Paramount School District in Southern California.

Located 20 miles south of Los Angeles, Paramount is smaller district with 17,000 students -- 75 percent of whom are Hispanic and from low-income families. After two years working with Pulliam's program, Paramount saw its pass rate on the state's high school exit exams leap to 76 percent from 39 percent. That's three percentage points higher than the Los Angeles County average.

"The reason Pulliam works is it's a continuous circle," said Stella Toibin, assistant superintendent of the Paramount school district. "We're teaching, testing, assessing where students are falling short and helping teachers address those areas. And then the whole cycle starts over again."

Mary Ella Holloway, president of the Clark County Education Association, said she was concerned when she first heard about the plan for "power standards" and "pacing schedules" for instruction. There were rumors of instructional "scripts" that teachers would have to follow, something the union vehemently opposed, Holloway said.

"You don't want to take away the creativity -- I think that's the most important ingredient in teaching," said Holloway, whose group represents the majority of the district's 15,000 teachers.

But after sitting in on a training session in August Holloway said she's changed her mind.

"It appears there's going to be quite a bit of data that could be very useful to teachers," Holloway said.

District officials are hopeful the power standards will also serve as a road map for less-experienced teachers -- of which Clark County has more than its share. Close to 50 percent of the district's teachers have logged five years or fewer in a classroom.


There have been questions, though, about whether Nevada's standards are high enough for what students should know.

The 2003 Legislature demanded that the Nevada Department of Education study whether the content of the state's proficiency exams matches up with what schools are supposed to teaching. So far there has been no indication that the tests required for graduation are inconsistent with the state's standards, said State Schools Superintendent Keith Rheault.

When compared to other states, Nevada's curriculum ranks well above average in both scope and difficulty, Rheault said. But that doesn't change the fact that many Nevada students -- including Millennium Scholars -- wind up in remedial classes, Rheault said.

And it doesn't explain why thousands of students seem to draw a blank when facing the math section of the proficiency test.

Statistics show Nevada's high school graduates are struggling. In a spring 2004 report, the Education Trust, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., found less than half of the state's community college students returned for a second year, compared with 61 percent nationally. The percentage of freshman at four-year colleges that returned for a second year was 73 percent, compared with 84 percent in the nation's top states.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, the single biggest predictor of college success is the quality -- and intensity -- of a student's high school curriculum.

"It counts for more than socio-economic factors and more than the education attainment level of the parents," said Craig Jerald, a researcher who prepared the report on the state of Nevada's public schools for the Education Trust. "The problem is that low-income and minority students are being steered away from the college track and that means less rigorous academic programs and fewer opportunities down the road."

Even if students opt for post-secondary programs outside of college -- such as vocational programs -- the tougher high school classes bode well for their job opportunities and earning potential, Jerald said.

"We're not suggesting college is for everyone," Jerald said. "But why not set the bar there for all students at the outset and let them choose for themselves, when they're seniors, where they go next?"

Of Nevada's high school seniors who graduated in 2003 and went on to the state's universities and colleges, 38.7 percent statewide -- and 37 percent in Clark County -- were placed in remedial classes. In Washoe County, home to the state's second-largest school district after Clark County, 42.6 percent of graduates enrolled in remedial classes.

Of students who took at least one remedial class in their freshmen year, the graduation rate was just 1 in 3, according to a study released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education. The graduation rate for students not taking remedial courses was 76 percent.

In 2002 a coalition of nonprofit groups and education officials in five states -- including Nevada -- teamed up for the American Diploma Project, a two-year study of high school curricula. The results, released earlier this year, declared the nation's high schools weren't making enough demands of students and set recommended benchmarks for graduation requirements.

"We have states where the math requirement for graduation is what kids in other countries do in the eighth grade," said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve -- an education think tank created by a coalition of the nation's governors in 1996 and a leading partner in the American Diploma Project. "There's a disconnect between what we're asking students to show they've learned and what they'll actually need to know to succeed."

The American Diploma Project recommends that states specify course requirements in English and mathematics -- such as algebra -- rather than simply requiring a minimum number of credits for each subject. And all students should be held to the same high standards, regardless of whether they are in college-track classes, magnet programs or vocational schools, the project's researchers concluded.

The Nevada Department of Education requires students to complete three credits of high school math but specific classes are not identified. Beginning with Clark County's class of 2007 -- this year's sophomores -- students will be required to have passed algebra in order to graduate.

The district's push to increase the number of students completing algebra by eighth grade is already yielding results. In 2003-04 there was a 10 percent increase in students who passed the math proficiency test on their first possible try as 10th graders. And the number of students enrolled in geometry this year is up 12 percent over last fall.

The push for more participation in algebra, like the new testing program, should help raise the expectations for all students, district officials say. But they don't want to forget the average student who is often left out when educators target problem areas.

Redefining average

Clark County educators say programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) are one way of steering middle-of-the-road students toward the challenging curriculum recommended by groups like the Education Trust and the American Diploma Project.

AVID is a nonprofit organization with more than 92,000 students enrolled in programs in 24 states and 16 countries. Ninety-five percent of students who take part in AVID go on to four-year colleges and universities.

The program, created by a San Diego high school teacher more than 20 years ago, looks for students in the academic "middle" --not remedial pupils, but also not the high achievers who are already likely to be college-bound. The students are enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement classes and surrounded by a support network of mentors, tutors and special workshops.

"We're going to boost them up and show them they will have the highest GPA possible when they have the most challenging curriculum." said Shirley Jimenez, chairwoman of the new Spring Valley High School's math department and coordinator of the AVID program at that campus.

Spring Valley is one of nine county high schools that will offer AVID.

Each of the nine schools will have up to 60 students divided into two groups. Many of the students would be the first in their families to attend college. Most -- but not all -- are minorities and come from low-income and working-class homes.

However, getting students to sign on has posed a challenge of its own.

Dozens who qualified for the program were reluctant to sign on for the extra work AVID requires.

"Some kids came in for the interview and said to me, 'Ms. Jimenez, why should I be in the program when I can make so much money parking cars at Circus Circus?' " Jimenez said. "They think they can get a job without any college training. It's hard to convince them that if they live anywhere else they'll need a degree. They see themselves living here forever."

Recruiting for the program should get easier next year when AVID is a known quantity and teachers can go directly to the middle schools to search for future participants, Jimenez said.

If Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Agustin Orci had his way, every eligible student would be enrolled in AVID. But the cost of the program -- $450,000 for 540 students in this first year alone -- makes that impossible, Orci said.

AVID is expensive because it requires smaller class sizes for the students and continual professional development for the teachers. The district also covers the cost of hiring university students to be tutors.

"The sad part of this is you take a huge school like Cimarron-Memorial and there's 60 kids in AVID -- they probably could had have 1,600 qualify," Orci said."These are kids that in a few years would probably fail the proficiency test and drop out. Instead they're going to be in AP (Advanced Placement) and honors classes and on their way to college."

Garcia is quick to point out that no one expects initiatives such as AVID or the new testing system to easily solve the district's academic shortfalls. But by focusing on every student -- including those in the middle -- the district has a better shot at boosting achievement overall.

"Our so-called average students are probably the ones we have the best shot at motivating," Garcia said. "Right now a lot of them are just treading water, doing enough to get by and not attracting a lot of attention.

"We're not going to lose our focus on helping our remedial students or our top achievers -- but we're also not going to let anyone drift along."

— Emily Richmond
Las Vegas Sun


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