As curriculum controversies rage, new law pushes Nevada schools to tell broader range of stories

There was a time in Mia Albright’s life that she cringed when her grandmother spoke Spanish in the grocery store. Instead of cultural pride, she felt shame.

The now-16-year-old traces those feelings back to school. Classroom lessons and reading material did not include enough diverse perspectives.

The Reno High School student, whose dad is white and whose mom is from Nicaragua, told state lawmakers this spring that the lack of Central American perspectives in her education left her with “serious questions” about her identity and culture and “fervently wishing to only be white.”

“No student should feel the way I felt, ostracized and alone, and no student should formulate or fall victim to those racist ideologies the way that I did,” Albright said at the Assembly and Senate Education Committee hearings for AB261 in the spring. Albright said textbooks with a wider range of viewpoints could mitigate or eliminate the issues she faced.

The change Albright advocated for is on its way. Earlier this year, AB261 passed along party lines in both the Assembly (26-16) and the Senate (12-9), with all Republicans opposed. The bill amends existing Nevada law to make sure those diverse perspectives are a core part of the K-12 curriculum. The law also prohibits the State Board of Education from selecting instructional materials that don’t accurately portray the history and contributions made by Native Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities and those from various racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds. 

Nevada is one of 16 states that has made efforts to expand such education this year, but it comes at a time when many states are going in the opposite direction. The national debate over how the history of various groups of people are taught at schools has led to backlash and confusion over terms such as “critical race theory” that proponents of inclusive education reform said have been conflated with others such as equity and social justice. 

Nevada students who testified during the legislative session said they felt the need to lobby for more inclusive instructional materials after discovering a slew of events they had not learned about in their U.S. History classes. 

Those included the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which a white mob looted the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and killed an estimated 100 to 300 of its residents, and the 1969 Stonewall uprising, in which New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village, New York City, sparking a riot among bar patrons and neighborhood residents.  

Jonathan Moore, deputy superintendent of student achievement at the Nevada Department of Education, believes that while there have long been efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the Nevada school system, social justice movements that have recently gained more national attention — such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate — have accelerated changes that were already underway. 

Many of the groups of people that “are globally under attack” are reflected in the Nevada school system, Moore said. 

“I think the recent events have just accelerated the urgency [to take action],” he added.

Dianne Lopez, 17, won second place for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. Learning about diverse perspectives can help students learn more about others and about themselves said Lopez, a senior at Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy in Las Vegas.

The potential impacts of the bill

Proponents of the bill point to the wide variety of benefits it may have on student performance and well-being. 

While existing social studies standards include multicultural education – which includes “information relating to contributions made by men and women from various racial and ethnic backgrounds” – Nevada law did not specifically outline the other groups included in AB261 to be represented in the teaching of science, the arts, and the humanities. AB261 also places an emphasis on the accuracy of the portrayal of the included groups of people. 

The changes made by the bill will be funded by existing school district budgets and will only apply to textbooks adopted in the future, not textbooks currently in classrooms. 

Even curricula with minimal culturally relevant content can improve student achievement, according to Geneva Gay, a professor of education at the University of Washington and author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching.” She defines culturally relevant content as anything that “uses the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant and effective.”

Doing so, she said, can lead to higher test scores and grade-point averages as well as an improvement in students’ self-confidence and engagement with the subject matter.

Culturally relevant content improves student achievement by relating academic knowledge and skills to students’ lived experiences, making it easier for students to find meaning and interest in content and thoroughly learn it, Gay argued.  

Sheila Weathers, a fourth-grade teacher at Tanaka Elementary School in Las Vegas, agrees that culturally relevant material “opens the door” for teachers to teach students the necessary skills to be successful in the classroom.

“I see my kids. Their eyes light up when they see someone who looks like them [in a text],” Weathers said.

Proponents assert that the bill will help foster a safer learning environment in which students can learn more about their own backgrounds while helping students build critical thinking skills that are necessary for navigating a diverse world. 

“Do we want our kids to think critically? Do we want kids to have an accurate understanding of history? Do we want kids to know and appreciate a variety of cultures and backgrounds and know how to engage with each other appropriately? Who wouldn’t support that?” said Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA and parent of four students in the Clark County School District. 

Garcia said she believes that there are groups spreading misinformation to influence parents to fight against causes that will actually benefit their children and that parents are often unaware of these efforts.

The bill became effective upon its passage in May for implementation and will be fully in effect in mid-2022. The bill kicks off a multi-year process of approving and adopting textbooks for various subject areas across all grade levels in each district.

Albright said that although she will no longer be in the Washoe County School District by the time the bill is implemented in schools, she recognizes the effect it may have on her younger sibling.

“I do have a little brother, and I really hope that he will be able to … feel included and heard and seen in a way that I wasn’t,” she said.

Zizi Boulware, 11, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. "We should be studying the cultures, religions, accomplishments and histories of people from [the] countries [in my artwork]," Boulware said. Boulware is in sixth grade and attends Hyde Park Middle School in Las Vegas.

The Background of AB261

This isn’t the first time that Nevada lawmakers passed a bill to diversify school curricula. In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed a bill that required the statewide standards for social studies to include multicultural education. Similar bills passed this legislative session. Among them: 

  • AB19, which removes government from the list of subjects included within social studies and adds civics, financial literacy and multicultural education.
  • SB194, which requires the state department to develop content standards for ethnic and diversity studies for high school students that include various perspectives that are similar to those listed in AB261. 

Unlike those bills, AB261 specifically pertains to instructional materials rather than content standards and focuses on science, the arts, and the humanities, including English.

Albright and Katie Hawley, another student who testified at an Assembly Education Committee hearing for the bill, both belong to youth activism organizations – the Las Vegas Youth Power Project and Washoe County Students for Change. Those organizations inspired Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks), an English teacher in Washoe County, to sponsor the bill. She had met with and listened to both organizations as they advocated for more diverse curricula at their local school board meetings in the fall of 2019. 

Anderson pointed to her background as an educator as the second source of inspiration for creating this bill.

“There was an article that came out and it stayed with me, [saying] that our literature should be both a mirror [and] a window,” she said. “And what that means is you want to be a mirror, a reflection of [who] our students are in their lives, but also a window into a different world.”

In a Senate Committee on Education hearing, Anderson said the intent of the bill was to give teachers more “tools in the toolbox” to teach diverse perspectives in their classrooms.

Luanne Wagner, a government and U.S. history teacher at Clark High School in Las Vegas, also teaches a class called “The African American Experience” for juniors and seniors. She said she often uses outside sources and supplemental materials to compensate for the lack of culturally relevant content in textbooks. 

When she discusses discrimination and civil rights in the United States, she tries to incorporate the histories of various groups of people such as the World War II history of Felix Longoria, the Mexican American soldier who was buried in Arlington National Cemetary after being denied burial alongside other veterans in Texas; the Japanese American unit that fought for the U.S. despite some of their family members being in internment camps; the Navajo Code talkers who used their language to develop a code that turned the tide of the war for the U.S.; and the Filipino people who risked their lives to offer food to American prisoners in Bataan, Philippines. 

AB261 will signal to textbook vendors who wish to sell their materials in Nevada that they must holistically and accurately portray the contributions and history of the groups of people outlined in the bill, Moore said. It will also provide legal support for teachers who want to promote diverse perspectives in their classrooms. 

“It’s nice to know that we have the state legislation that now backs us up and justifies us,” said Alyson Henderson, an English teacher at Clark High School in Las Vegas. “With it being law now, there’s going to be more teachers who are doing it.”

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno), who voted for the bill in committee but ultimately voted against it, feared the language of the bill was too restrictive. 

“I am for the premise of this legislation. My only concern was that … [the language may] create a situation where if a textbook did not include all of the different [groups outlined] … it would create a barrier for adopting new textbooks based on availability,” Tolles said. She emphasized that she was very supportive of multicultural education.

The intent of the bill is to ensure the accurate portrayal of those groups rather than to ensure that all of the groups are included in every instructional material and lesson, Anderson said at an Assembly Education Committee hearing. Tolles said she was later assured that the state will follow that intention in implementing the bill. 

Teia Venzon, 14, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. Venzon is a sophomore at Reno High School.

Opponents of the bill

Although there were significantly more people who called in support of the bill during public comment at the committee hearings, some spoke against it.

At the Senate Education Committee hearing, Alida Benson, the political director of the Nevada Republican Party, said that there has been “a focus on revamping [the] curriculum to quietly insert backdoor critical race theory into our schools.” 

Anderson rejected that assertion. So did Addie Rolnick, a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law with expertise in critical race theory (CRT) — she said CRT is primarily taught in law school or in some undergraduate- or graduate-level courses but does not see it included in AB261.

CRT is a legal academic theory that examines the relationship between race and law. Rolnick said the theory argues that racism is not just demonstrated by individual people with prejudices, but that it can be unconscious and embedded in structures like the law. It is centered on the idea that race is not merely a biological trait, but a social construct that the law has helped define. Critical Race scholars argue that the legal system is not a set of neutral “colorblind rules,” but a system that perpetuates racial inequality.

It does not encompass everything that involves a discussion on race, Rolnick said. She believes the term has been inaccurately used as a catch-all phrase for a slew of loosely related topics including more inclusive history education.

“The teaching of real history and the acknowledgment of various people's experiences is part of what this bill is doing, but that's [the only similarity] at a very basic level, and CRT is a lot more than that,” Rolnick said. “And so they are not really related at all.”

Rolnick believes the nationwide anti-CRT backlash is part of “a carefully orchestrated campaign” in which conservative activists are deliberately attempting to conflate the CRT with other topics.

Albright said she is concerned that the spread of misinformation about CRT will cause public backlash for the bill, just as it did at a Washoe County School District board meeting in June 2021, when a new social justice curriculum was discussed. But Moore and Kindra Fox, the Washoe County School District’s director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said that districts will continue to follow the academic content standards, which also do not include CRT.

Bob Russo, who called to offer public comment in opposition to the bill, expressed his concerns that the bill will be “divisive.” 

“Personally, I believe that recognizing one’s accomplishments in accordance with their gender, race, or religion is divisive and undermines the recognition and honor a person deserves for what they have done,” Russo said during the Senate Education Committee hearing for AB261.

Rolnick said she understands the view that it is always dangerous to classify on the basis of race, but that she doesn’t agree with it. 

“It’s not the act of noticing [the] hierarchy that creates the hierarchy. And in fact, you have to notice it in order to undo it,” Rolnick said.

Arguing that classifying people on the basis of race is divisive also requires the assumption that race is merely one’s skin color or ancestry, rather than something that has determined how resources have historically been distributed, Rolnick added. 

Proponents of the bill argue that the measure may help foster empathy and prevent bigotry. 

“I met countless students who have entered the world unprepared because they weren't taught about the past properly,” Nathan Noble, a UNR student and graduate of the Nevada public school system, told lawmakers in the spring. “And I've witnessed firsthand how an incomplete view of the past breeds ignorance and how in turn that ignorance can sow the seeds of bigotry.”

JD Davis, 15, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. "My artwork shows that no matter your sexuality, race, religion, etc. at the end of the day, we are all human," said Davis. Davis is a sophomore at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts.

The Funding and Timeline of Implementation

AB261 is an unfunded mandate, meaning that the state will not provide districts with the funds to fulfill the requirements of the bill. Rather, new instructional materials will draw from existing school district budgets.

But the bill does not require districts to adopt new textbooks immediately. Instead, districts will adopt them whenever they are scheduled to purchase new textbooks.

What that means: It will be years before districts’ instructional materials live up to the bill’s intent.

Washoe County and Lyon County school districts, for example, follow a seven-year textbook adoption cycle in which they try to adopt a new set of textbooks every year for a particular subject area. Sometimes, it takes longer than seven years if districts do not have sufficient funds at the time they are scheduled to adopt new instructional materials. 

Lyon County Superintendent Wayne Workman expressed his concerns about funding in an interview. However, funding for instructional materials has always been a concern for districts, even before this bill was passed, Fox said. 

Moore believes that funding will be less of a concern moving forward because AB261 only affects future textbook adoptions. That means districts will have more time to plan their funds to meet the requirements of the bill. Also, the state Department of Education has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding during the pandemic that can be leveraged to provide new instructional materials, Moore said.

The bill only applies to state-approved core materials, not supplemental materials that individual districts, schools, or educators may use in addition to the core materials. Core materials can include a variety of materials such as standard textbooks, novels, and more. 

Sophia Empedrad, 17, received an honorable mention for this submission to The Nevada Independent's art contest on diverse perspectives in education. "Learning about diverse perspectives in school enhances knowledge and benefits not only the individual learning from others, but also the people around them," said Empedrad, a senior at Ed W. Clark High School in Las Vegas.

What does the instructional material adoption process look like?

Both Workman and Fox are eager to hear back from the state department about what the new standards will look like and what their next steps will be in integrating the new standards into the existing ones. 

Before the state begins the lengthy instructional material adoption process depicted below, the state department has to review the existing statewide standards and rubrics for evaluating instructional materials to ensure they meet the requirements of the bill. There is no set date for when they will begin this process given the other developments they are implementing, but they will be working on it soon, Moore said. 

Anderson said she hopes students are involved in the process of implementing this bill. Albright agrees.

“I’ve been used to adults speaking about what I want for almost like my whole life. Well, they aren't in school anymore,” Albright said. “They don't know what it's like to be growing up in a time like this, all the confusion that's going on … I think, as students, we're the most qualified to tell other people what we need and what we want from our education.”

Implementing the bill in the classroom

Adopting the instructional materials is only step one. Anderson said the most important step is teacher training and implementation.

Some are skeptical about how well the new changes will be implemented and enforced. Garcia, the president of the Nevada PTA, is among those who are skeptical about the implementation and enforcement of this bill. She said she has seen “incredibly inconsistent” practices across the Clark County School District. 

“I feel that will be a problem with this particular piece of legislation,” she said.

But teachers in Washoe County regularly implement changes in their classroom and the district’s curriculum and instruction department is used to providing lesson planning and professional development support, Fox said. She said the past multicultural standards have been “fun and interesting to implement” for some Washoe County teachers. 

As a teacher, Henderson said she hopes training sessions related to AB261 include a diverse set of staff or educators. She recalled a multicultural education training session she attended in the past that was run by two white women and organized by the Clark County School District. 

“If you’re trying to be more multicultural, I think maybe you shouldn’t have two white women running this training,” she said.

Weathers emphasizes the importance of having teachers be at the forefront of the process of implementing education bills. 

“[AB261] will be successful, number one, if there’s teacher voice there. Teachers need to be involved in how the bill will be delivered to schools … because teachers are going to need training,” Weathers said. 

Some teachers may be hesitant to teach about perspectives they are unfamiliar with out of fear of offending students. However, by engaging students in conversations and admitting that they do not know everything, teachers can help establish trust with their students, Henderson said. They must also do research about the texts that they are teaching beforehand, she added.

Both Henderson and Wagner said they have not experienced backlash and have received overwhelming support from parents, students, and administrators in teaching diverse perspectives. They attribute that support to creating a safe learning environment and trusting relationships with students. 

“I always tell the students, ‘Look, you know, [the] bottom line is a fact is a fact is a fact, and this a fact, not my opinion. But this happened, and so now we need to look at it, and we need to have a courageous conversation about it, and how do you feel about this topic?’” Wagner said. The key to ensuring students are comfortable is trusting students and creating a safe, respectful, and culturally responsive learning environment. 

She told a story about a white student who asked her if he could share something with his classmates in a U.S. history class she taught at Clark High School decades ago. 

The teen boy said he was raised as a white supremacist in Texas but his teachers at Clark High School changed his beliefs, Wagner said. His classmates were surprised but very accepting.

“If I can create an environment where students feel safe enough to say something like that, and to be accepted by their peers, I think we’re on the right track,” Wagner said.

How many tests are too many? The state wants to find out.

When the pandemic sent students into remote-learning mode last year, the federal government waived standardized testing that normally occurs in the spring.

The decision thrilled some students, parents and educators who bemoan what they perceive as too much testing and not enough instruction time in the school environment. But is that actually the case?

That’s what the Nevada Department of Education has been charged with finding out courtesy of recently passed legislation awaiting the governor’s signature. Consider SB353 an assessment of assessments. 

The legislation directs the department to review the tests students are taking for their educational benefits, their costs and any redundancies in the information, skills or abilities measured. The second half of the bill requires action by the department to adopt regulations that set limits on the time taken from instruction to conduct an assessment as well as the number of assessments administered each school year. If a school district or charter school wanted to administer a test beyond those limits, it would need a waiver approved by the State Board of Education. 

“I think that this will ... go a long way to helping to assuage some of the concerns because we'll have more concrete data about what is happening,” said Jonathan Moore, the state’s deputy superintendent of student achievement. “And then we'll be in a position to support educators and school districts.”

The legislation builds upon a bill passed in the 2017 session — SB303 — that called for an audit of assessments used to monitor student progress. But Moore said the audit only looked at state-mandated assessments, which didn’t yield a full picture of testing happening at the school district level, too.

It has been difficult to say how many assessments students take because it can differ by school or even by child. For instance, schools may be administering MAP Growth tests every few months to measure students’ progress in reading and math. But all public school students in grades three through eight take the Smarter Balanced Assessment, commonly referred to as SBAC tests, in the spring. Students learning English as a second language must take another test known as the WIDA assessment to monitor their mastery of the language. And that’s just a sampling of the tests that exist.

Moore said the department will hire a consultant to conduct the review, which will be done through the lens of the balanced assessment system. In other words, it will take into account the types of assessments given, the frequency of assessments and the data yielded from them and how the information helps inform instruction in the classroom. 

The bill carries an appropriation of $65,364 in the first fiscal year of the biennium and $187,500 in the second year — which would fund the consultant’s work as well as costs associated with adopting regulations.

The Nevada State Education Association submitted written testimony late last month that criticized the prior attempt, saying the final report that stemmed from SB303 “was written with a predetermined result in mind that is out of line with the realities in our classrooms.”

NSEA concluded its support for SB353 by alluding to it as a second chance: “We hope the current Department takes this task more seriously this time, so we can spend less time testing and more time teaching and learning.”

Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA, lauded the forthcoming review as a step in the right direction. 

“Obviously, looking at assessments isn’t going to address the plethora of issues with standardized assessments in America,” she said. “But I think it can give some good information to better understand what is of most value here in Nevada.”

While Garcia acknowledges the merits of standardized testing — to gauge students’ needs and provide appropriate instruction — she said her organization receives frequent complaints from parents and teachers concerned about the volume. It’s not uncommon for schools to throw pep rallies or offer rewards as an incentive for students to do well, especially when tests correlate to a school’s rating or teacher evaluations.

The situation, she said, can exacerbate testing anxiety among students.

“If you have kids who struggle with testing, which I do, you suddenly see how difficult that is when the message they’re getting from their school is, ‘You must do well. You must do well,’” she said.

After a hiatus last year, springtime testing returned this year. The U.S. Education Department announced in February that states must administer standardized tests required by federal law, though given the ongoing pandemic, there was some flexibility about how to give those tests. The decision irked hundreds of education researchers who asked newly minted Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to change course, but the administration stood firm, pointing to the need for data about student learning during the pandemic.

Moore said he expects the work tied to SB353 to be completed by the end of the upcoming biennium. He hopes it clears up confusion about testing and leads to efficiencies where possible, eliminating any arbitrary assessments.

“And so if we look at what our summative assessments measure at the end of the year, are the assessments we’re giving truly putting us in a position where we can inform teaching and learning on a daily basis, on an interim basis?” he said.

State superintendent issues guidance for graduation, giving school districts broad discretion

The Nevada Department of Education issued a nine-page guidance document Friday suggesting that school districts “consider alternatives to in-person graduation ceremonies” as the coronavirus upends daily life around the world.

The paper also seeks to provide some clarity about how school districts should handle graduation requirements for the Class of 2020. It touches on four key areas — attendance, course completion, class rank and assessments — and gives school districts broad discretion.

“It is not the Nevada Department of Education’s (NDE) position that seniors are automatically finished with schooling during the closure of school buildings, since there are other considerations, such as concurrent credit courses, CTE industry certifications, and other determinations as to whether a senior is on the path toward graduation,” the department leaders wrote. “Whether a senior is on the path toward graduation is a local education agency decision.”

School districts can decide whether seniors who can’t finish classes because of COVID-19 “have completed sufficient course content” to graduate; however, state education officials suggest districts examine whether students were on a path to graduation prior to the virus-related school closures.

For students not already on a path toward graduation, the state education department should “consider how to create academic experiences” that would yield credits and lead to graduation eligibility. 

Credits could be achieved through assignments — such as written work packets, online coursework, projects, portfolios or applied work experiences — or competency-based assessments, according to the guidance document. The latter could include tests created by school districts, online ACT, PSAT and SAT prep, or using a determined cut score from a college-entrance exam, among others.

The bottom line appears to be flexibility.

“NDE recommends that districts provide as much latitude and support for students to graduate on time as possible,” the guidance states.

As for calculating grades and class rank, the department suggests districts roll over students’ grades from the previous semester or come up with another method that reflects students’ work.

Students are being contacted at least once a week for purposes of attendance. School districts agreed to that as they shifted to distance learning, per Gov. Steve Sisolak’s emergency directive last month.

After the coronavirus-related school closures, the U.S. Department of Education waived certain state standardized testing and accountability requirements for the 2019-2020 school year. But there are other assessments that fall outside that waiver.

Nevada law, for instance, requires high school students take a civics test. State education officials, however, are “researching available options” to have that assessment waived, according to the guidance document.

State education officials also said they’re working with the vendor for career and technical education assessments to come up with an online solution. The online testing could begin by April 20, they wrote, and continue as long as necessary.

Despite asking school districts to consider alternatives to in-person graduation ceremonies, state education officials did not offer any specific recommendations.

Churchill, Lyon, Washoe and White Pine county school districts are working with the state education department on the guidance, along with the Nevada Association of School Superintendents and WestEd. State Superintendent Jhone Ebert and two deputy superintendents — Jonathan Moore and Felicia Gonzales — authored the guidance document.

Greg Bortolin, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Education, said the academic year was about 80 percent complete when the closure started, which made it easier to provide more flexibility for graduation.

“I think if this happened in November or December, we’d be having a totally different conversation,” he said.

The governor has ordered schools and nonessential businesses to remain closed at least through April 30.

Statewide graduation rate hits 84 percent, setting another record

Students in caps and gowns at Eldorado High School graudation

If there’s any uncertainty about why Nevada school districts are pushing career and technical education, the evidence may lie in graduation rates.

Students enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs posted the highest graduation rate — 94 percent for the Class of 2019 — among any student population in the state, education officials announced Thursday. That marked a roughly 3 percentage point increase over the prior year, which, in turn, helped propel the state’s overall graduation rate higher.

Eighty-four percent of Nevada students in the Class of 2019 received a diploma, setting a graduation record for the second straight year. The statewide graduation rate was 83 percent last year and 81 percent in 2017. 

State education leaders said the increased graduation rate correlates with improvements seen on standardized test results and schools’ star ratings. Graduation rates for 10 school districts exceeded the statewide average.

“I think this is just another indicator that we’re making steps toward improving student outcomes for students,” said Jonathan Moore, deputy superintendent of student achievement for the Nevada Department of Education. “I think it’s also another testament to how hard our districts and educators are working.”

The graduation rate for CTE students serves as an aspirational benchmark for the state as a whole. About 28 percent of 2019 graduates — or 12,964 students — were enrolled in a CTE program. As that enrollment number has increased over time, so has the graduation rate for those students, state officials said.

In the Clark County School District, which has on overall graduation rate of 86 percent this year, the career and technical academies led the way. Advanced Technical Academy, East Career Technical Academy, Southwest Career and Technical Academy and Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy all achieved 100 percent graduation rates for the Class of 2019. 

Others came extremely close — Southeast Career and Technical Academy (99.5 percent), West Career and Technical Academy (98.3 percent), and Northwest Career and Technical Academy (99.2 percent). 

The Clark County Board of Trustees recently approved an updated capital improvement program, which includes the creation of two new career and technical academies. Although those are years away from welcoming students, district leaders hope it widens access to the sought-after programs. During last year’s enrollment period, the district received roughly 22,000 magnet applications for 15,201 available seats, and 64 percent of those applications were for career and technical academies.

But CTE programs weren’t the sole driver of the state’s increased graduation rates. Since 2017, the graduation rates for all racial and ethnic subgroups have increased. Pacific Islander students posted the highest gain — a 6 percentage-point increase over the two-year period, resulting in a nearly 89 percent graduation rate.

From a district perspective, the State Public Charter School Authority showed the most growth. Two years ago, the Charter Authority’s graduation rate stood at 65 percent. In 2018, it increased to 70 percent and, this year, it jumped to 78 percent.

“Ultimately, this is just a reflection of the hard work our schools are doing,” said Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the Charter Authority.

Fourteen of 17 charter schools with a Class of 2019 have graduation rates higher than 85 percent. Lower graduation rates for the three other schools, however, pulled the Charter Authority’s overall rate down. Beacon Academy, which serves at-risk students, has a 25 percent graduation rate; Nevada Connections Academy, an online school, has a 70 percent graduation rate; and Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus has an 80 percent graduation rate.

The graduation rates also revealed some trouble spots across the state. Lander School District continued its downward slide, tumbling 9 percentage points to a 78 percent graduation rate. State officials didn’t offer a specific reason for the decrease, aside from noting that districts with smaller classes sizes are subject to more dramatic shifts based on the average calculations. 

The White Pine County School District’s graduation rate — 67 percent — remained unchanged over the prior year and is the lowest in the state.

The graduation rate for foster children — a subgroup the state began tracking in 2018 along with homeless students — dipped by roughly 2 percentage points this year to 44 percent. But the graduation rate for homeless students did the opposite: It increased by 2 percentage points to reach 66 percent.

Asked whether the state’s on course to see nine out of every 10 students graduate in the near future, Moore struck an optimistic tone.

“We certainly hope so,” he said. 

Report ranks Nevada middle of the road for rural education

Whiteboard in a rural school

A new report shows a mixed bag of results when it comes to educating students in Nevada’s more far-flung locales, identifying improved test scores as a bright spot but low college readiness as a challenge.

Nevada is the 23rd-highest-need state for rural education, according to a report released Thursday by the Rural School and Community Trust, a nonpartisan organization. Just two years ago, the Silver State ranked No. 7, although some metrics have changed since then.

The report, which analyzes rural education needs in all 50 states, aims to shed light on the concerns facing schools and students in less-populated areas. The organization estimates about 7.5 million students attend school in rural districts in the United States, with about 1 in 6 of those children living below the poverty line.

“While some rural schools thrive, others and their communities continue to face devastating obstacles in the education and well-being of children,” Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, said in a statement. “Leaders in every state and our nation’s capital must work together to better address the issues facing rural students, schools, and communities with great haste.”

Roughly 7,500 Nevada students attend schools that meet the federal definition of a “rural locale,” which takes into consideration distance from an urbanized area. Those students live in Esmeralda, Lincoln, Nye, Pershing, Eureka and Storey counties. Other counties typically referred to as rural in colloquial conversations — such as Churchill, Elko, Humboldt, Lander, Mineral, White Pine, Douglas and Lyon — are technically part of the “town locale” category.

So how do Nevada’s rural students stack up with their peers elsewhere?

For starters, they’re the most diverse group in terms of race, socioeconomic status and geographic mobility. That diversity comes with its own struggles, though. Nevada, for example, has the highest rate (18.7 percent) of rural students who have changed residences in the past year, which authors said creates “extreme challenges in educational stability for these students and their classmates.”

The report’s authors noted that Nevada’s rural students showed some of the biggest gains comparing fourth-graders and eighth-graders’ math and reading scores on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is sometimes referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.” But that improvement is tempered by this reality: Their scores trailed the state’s non-rural students.

The report also lamented the low rates of dual enrollment and Advanced Placement credit attainment, declaring Nevada rural students the least ready for college in the nation. Just 1 percent of rural juniors and seniors in Nevada passed at least one AP exam, the authors found.

Nevada’s deputy superintendent for student achievement, Jonathan Moore, said expanding AP access to rural students is a priority but a challenge given the ongoing teacher shortage. The state has roughly 1,000 teacher vacancies — about three quarters of which are in Clark County — and finding an educator qualified to teach AP courses in rural areas adds to the challenge.

“When we think about what it means to expand access, you need professional and teachers, one, available to even teach those courses,” he said. “That’s a hurdle.”

The state is trying to address that problem through distance learning, said Maria Sauter, the assistant director for the Office of Student and School Supports within the Nevada Department of Education. She credited Andrea Connolly, principal of Nevada Learning Academy, with expanding rural students’ access to AP and career and technical education (CTE) courses.

But fewer than 20 rural students across the state enrolled in the virtual courses last year, Sauter said, acknowledging that it was “not as many as we hoped.”

State officials hope to continue raising awareness and boosting those numbers. But speaking more broadly about the challenges facing Nevada’s rural schools, Sauter emphasized the personnel problem: It’s difficult to recruit enough teachers in some places, let alone counselors, paraprofessionals or other key staff members who help support struggling students.

As the Baby Boomers inch toward retirement, she said, it’s creating even more staffing worries for rural education leaders.

“The communities are too small, and you just can’t find the extra people to do some of those duties,” she said.

The report identified Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida as the highest-priority states, meaning they have the greatest rural education needs.

The following gauges were used to determine the condition of rural education in each state: the importance of rural education, diversity of rural students and their families, educational policy context, educational outcomes and college readiness.  

How much value do parents place on school star ratings? It depends.

Elementary students standing in the hallway

When Rachel Morris and her family moved to Las Vegas from San Francisco, they put more stock in a prospective school’s mascot than its star rating.

Morris, a mother of two, says this jokingly, but the reality is her kids lucked out: They ended up at Goolsby Elementary School, a five-star building. Her son and daughter are now “Goolsby Greyhounds,” which they thought had a nice ring to it.

“I did look at the star ratings, but I didn’t take them too seriously,” she said. 

Her outlook raises a question about the annual star ratings. They foster hopes and fears among educators and can trigger celebrations at schools that earned high marks, but how much value do parents place on those yellow stars?

The Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to publish certain accountability-related information about a school and district’s performance, but the federal law gives them latitude in how to do so. Some states use rating systems with traditional letter grades. Others states, including California, have adopted dashboard-style systems that show performance across multiple metrics but don’t assign an overall rating. 

Under the Nevada School Performance Framework, schools receive a star rating based on their performance. It ranges from five stars for schools that exceed all expectations to one star for schools that have not met the state’s academic standards. A variety of metrics, including students’ performance on standardized tests, chronic absenteeism rates and opportunity gaps factor into a school’s overall star rating.

The Nevada Department of Education releases the star ratings every September, often with fanfare for schools that achieved five stars or showed huge improvement. But shortly after the star ratings debuted last month, Rebecca Garcia, president elect of the Nevada PTA,  posed the following question in a Facebook group for Clark County School District parents:

PARENTS - Interested to hear your thoughts... With all the Star Rating news today how much do the Nevada school performance rankings matter to you? This is specifically for PARENTS to respond to please.”

More than 500 people responded to the survey. The vast majority of respondents (62 percent) chose the option labeled, “Interested to know but not how I judge a school.” The other votes cast fell in this order: 

  • “Somewhat important” (18 percent)
  • “Very important” (12 percent)
  • “Let’s just help students enjoy learning again” (5 percent)
  • “Not important” (3 percent)

Although not a scientific survey, the results offer a glimpse of how parents view the yearly school ratings. Garcia  said the Facebook survey didn’t necessarily surprise her. 

“I have mixed feelings about the star ratings,” she said. “It’s interesting because I actually love data. I do think we need some sort of measurement and accountability. At the same time, I only think it tells a small piece of the whole story.”

Garcia, who has three school-aged children, said fluctuations between two, three and four stars don’t bother her as much as schools that haven’t budged from a one-star rating for years. Her children are zoned for Bailey Middle School and Mountain View Elementary School, which this year received one- and two-star ratings, respectively. Instead, her children attend three-star magnet schools — Sandy Searles Miller Academy for International Studies and Mike O’Callaghan Middle School — on the east side of Las Vegas. 

The magnet schools’ higher star ratings contributed to Garcia’s decision to send her children there, she said. But she digs deeper into the ratings, analyzing how the schools performed across different metrics. Sandy Searles Miller Academy for International Studies, for example, has a chronic absenteeism rate of 5.2 percent. Garcia said that statistic tells her more about the school than its overall rating.

“That’s because kids want to go to school. Parents want to send their kids there,” she said. “The culture and climate of a school makes a huge difference.”

But Garcia isn’t convinced most parents have the time or desire to sift through the data and decode the education lingo attached to the rating system. Joshua Parker, a parent and UNLV student studying education, agrees. He judges the quality of education his daughter receives more on her teacher than a school’s overall rating. 

“I know my daughter goes to a four-star school, and that’s great,” he said. “All I care about is what they’re being taught. I don’t need a number for the school, personally, to determine whether the school is good.”

Colby Pellegrino, a mother of two children who attend Twitchell Elementary School, said she does place some emphasis on the star ratings — and the data embedded within it — for the sake of accountability. The rating system, she said, arms parents with information that enables them to compare student progress and schools. 

But, like Parker, she also pays close attention to her children’s teachers.

“I think one good teacher or one bad teacher makes all the difference in the world,” she said. “I know some amazing teachers that teach at two-star schools, and I know some really mediocre teachers that teach at five-star schools.”

In fact, the Nevada Teacher of the Year, Gail Hudson, works at a two-star school, Hummel Elementary.

Morris said her children fared well academically at a Title I school serving a low-income population in San Francisco. They’re thriving here, too, at a high-performing suburban school, which she attributes to factors beyond test scores and star ratings. Morris said after-school programs matter, as do personal connections. Her son formed a bond with a physical-education teacher, she said, and looked forward to that class.

“You could put your kids in the best-ranked school ever, and they could be unhappy because it’s just not for them,” she said.

Dr. Jonathan Moore, the state’s deputy superintendent for student achievement, said the star ratings serve an important purpose because they capture achievement happening across a school. The data points within the rating system show where learning outcomes have fallen short, giving educators a roadmap for improvement, he said. But the department is also working with school districts on ways to make the star rating information more accessible — and digestible — to parents. 

Ideally, he said parents should be browsing the star rating information and telling their child’s teacher or principal, “Talk with me a little bit more about what this data means for my school and what it means for my child.”

Still, Moore acknowledged that parent perception of school quality goes beyond academic benchmarks. Parents want to know about their children’s safety, social well-being, connections with staff and access to extracurricular programs or field trips, he said.

“I think parents consider many things when measuring the overall education experience and context for their children,” he said.

For some parents, though, the star ratings take the guesswork out of navigating the public education system. Cristian Baeza said she sends her two children to Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, a three-star magnet, in part because of its rating. She also heard good things about the school from family and friends.

“Even when you buy something, you go to the reviews and you trust a little bit more when they have good reviews,” she said. “With the schools, it’s the same.”

As school ratings show some statewide gains, education officials call for more sharing of best practices

Fifth-grade teacher MaryAnn Thomson talks with her students

More than half of Nevada schools are meeting or exceeding performance standards, according to data released late Sunday by the Nevada Department of Education.

Education officials heralded the 2019 Nevada School Performance Framework results as more evidence that the state’s frequently criticized public school system is making gains despite ongoing challenges. About 53 percent of schools statewide achieved three, four or five stars — ratings that indicate they’re “adequate,” “commendable” or “superior” in terms of students’ academic performance. Last year, 49 percent of schools achieved three or more stars.

Ninety-three schools did not receive a rating, indicating they’re too small or don’t serve the grade levels taking the standardized assessments that factor into the score. Excluding those that didn’t receive a rating, the percentage of schools that earned at least three stars is even higher — 60 percent.

The percentage climb was fueled by 184 schools that increased their rating by one or more stars. Of those, 34 schools increased by two stars, and three schools moved up by three stars.

“We know that that work and those ratings don’t happen by chance,” State Superintendent Jhone Ebert said. “Teachers look at where their students are at a specific point in time. They work extremely hard to support the students and the families.”

To that end, Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara on Thursday delivered thank-you gifts to two teachers who demonstrated significant achievement gains at Triggs Elementary School, which jumped from two to five stars this year. Two rural schools — Hawthorne Elementary in the Mineral County School District and Hillside Elementary in the Storey County School District — also made a similar leap, going from one to four stars.

Sheila Cooper, principal of Triggs Elementary School, attributed the rapid growth to teachers’ focus on curriculum standards and their willingness to work together. As part of that, she said, the school made sure all students were receiving “direct instruction at a level that meets their needs.”

The framework that determines the star ratings is aligned with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and uses multiple metrics to ascertain a school’s overall performance. Five-star schools exceed all expectations, while one-star schools have not met the state’s academic standards.

Struggling schools 

Per ESSA, the state must also designate schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent of all schools, have a one-star rating or have graduation rates below 67 percent. If a school meets any of those criteria, it’s considered a Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) school.

Overall, about 1 in 5 Nevada public schools — or 21 percent — are considered CSI schools. But the number of newly designated CSI schools fell from 55 last year to 29 this year.

There are two other federal designations — Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) and Additional Targeted Support and Improvement (ATSI) — that pertain to schools with underperforming and low-performing student groups. TSI schools have underperforming student groups that have not met multiple academic targets for two consecutive years. ATSI schools, meanwhile, meet the TSI criteria but also have very low-performing student groups. 

The Nevada Department of Education identified nine new TSI schools this year, the same number as in 2018. But the department only identified 45 new ATSI schools compared with 104 last year. 

The White Pine County School District has the most designations, with two-thirds of its schools considered a CSI, TSI or ATSI campus. The Clark County School District has the second-highest amount, with 51 percent of its schools having a designation.

The designations, however, don’t indicate a state takeover. Nevada lawmakers this year passed Senate Bill 321, abolishing the Achievement School District, which had turned underperforming traditional public schools into charter schools. 

Jonathan Moore, the deputy superintendent for student achievement in Nevada, said the department has been “working robustly” to provide support and technical assistance to underperforming schools. That includes helping school leaders and staff implement evidence-based practices to boost student learning.

Urban school districts

A smaller number of Clark County schools received a prestigious five-star rating this year.

Forty-four schools earned five stars this year, compared with 54 in 2018, according to the Nevada School Performance Framework data. But the number of three-star schools increased from 87 last year to 101 this year. The number of two-star schools also increased from 99 last year to 107 this year. 

The number of one-star and four-star schools, however, remained relatively unchanged. There were also fewer Clark County schools that did not receive a rating this year — 32 versus 46 last year.

The Washoe County School District saw gains in the number of schools receiving two, three and four stars. But it also saw a decline in five-star schools, going from 22 in 2018 to 20 this year. On the flip side, it has three fewer one-star schools than it did last year.

Overall, the State Public Charter School Authority earned the most five-star ratings, with 44 schools receiving the highest distinction. On the other end of the spectrum, roughly 1 in 5 charter schools under the SPCSA received a one- or two-star rating. (Eighteen charters received two stars, while three charters received one star.)

Other takeaways

A variety of metrics factor into a school’s star rating, including chronic absenteeism, graduation rates and how students perform on state standardized tests known as Smarter Balanced assessments.

Chronic absenteeism declined by less than 1 percentage point from last year, reaching roughly 19 percent. In other words, nearly 1 in 5 Nevada students are absent 10 percent or more of their enrolled school days.

The state’s graduation rate, however, showed more improvement. The graduation rate for the class of 2018 increased by 2 percentage points to hit 83 percent, the highest rate recorded in Nevada. 

State officials also said all grade levels demonstrated increased English language arts (ELA) proficiency on the Smarter Balanced assessments. Fifth-graders snagged the highest ELA proficiency rate at roughly 52 percent.

Third-graders notched the highest math proficiency rate  — 48 percent — despite an overall decline of 0.44 percentage points in that category.

As the state seeks higher proficiency rates among students, Ebert said it’s incumbent upon educators to replicate best practices. 

“We are moving in the right direction,” she said.

Here's the full list of the 2019 school ratings from the Nevada Department of Education:

2-Minute Preview: An education budget overview, red light cameras and vaccination rules

Lawmakers will get a crash course on education funding and Nevada’s property tax system on Tuesday, in addition to considering the idea of speed-detecting cameras to help enforce the law.

A full slate of bill hearings is mixed in with presentations from agencies including the Nevada Highway Patrol and the Nevada Seismological Lab.

For more information on the status of bills working their way through the Legislature, check out The Nevada Independent’s bill tracker. And for the bills in committee today, check out the Legislature’s website for committee times and links to watch live committee meetings and floor sessions.

Here’s what to watch for on Tuesday at the Legislature:

All the big education budgets

In a budget subcommittee, Senate and Assembly members alike will get an overview of some of the state’s most important education accounts. Acting state Superintendent Jonathan Moore is making presentations on the primary Distributive School Account, the New Nevada Education Funding Plan and a school safety account.

The subcommittee meets at 8 a.m.

AB110: Defending security guards from assault

The Assembly Judiciary Committee will hear AB110, a bill that would raise the penalties against people who assault a security guard. Existing law sets specific penalties for assaults committed  on officers, but the measure would expand beyond just traditional police officers.

The bill is sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle. The committee meets at 8 a.m.

AB123: Tracking unvaccinated kids

The Assembly Education committee will consider AB123, which would require more documentation when parents opt their children out of vaccines. Democratic Assemblywoman Connie Munk, the bill’s sponsor, said the lack of information-sharing between school districts and health districts makes it difficult to know which children should be pulled out of school during an outbreak.

State law requires children to have vaccinations to attend school, but allows exceptions for religious or medical reasons. Munk’s bill also requires a doctor’s certification when a person claims a medical exemption.

The committee meets at 1:30 p.m.

SB43: Red light and speed cameras

This bill, put forward by the Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety, would allow cities and counties to install red light and speed cameras to enforce traffic laws. Any governments that choose to install traffic cameras would be required to launch a public information campaign about the enforcement system and establish a fine of no less than $50 for any violation detected by the system and no less than $100 for someone who fails to respond to a citation.

The legislation also requires that warning signs be posted no more than 300 feet from the location of a traffic camera and requires an employee of a law enforcement agency to review the evidence before a citation is issued. Such violations determined by the traffic cameras also could not be recorded by the DMV on a driver’s record and wouldn’t be deemed a moving violation.

The bill will be heard in Senate Growth and Infrastructure at 1:30 p.m.

Property taxes

A joint meeting of the Assembly Taxation Committee and the Senate Revenue and Economic Development will hear a presentation on property taxes in Nevada from Jeff Mitchell, deputy director of the Department of Taxation.

The hearing comes as lawmakers are likely to consider property taxes fixes this session, including a proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Julia Ratti that would allow property tax depreciation to reset on sale.

The committees meet at 4 p.m.