Read the fine print

I was in Washington, D.C. last week and had an opportunity to listen to people from around the country belonging to different educational organizations gripe about Education Week's report card issued last week on the states.

While as a whole Nevada performed poorly, the state did receive an A- on Standards and Assessment. If anyone read the fine print in this grading scheme, I think they might come away a little disillusioned.

It seems Ed Week used the American Federation of Teachers report card released last year as a basis for their report card. AFT's grade was based on "specificity and clarity" of standards. In other words, they wanted teachers to be able to create lesson plans based on the state standards. In reality, AFT wanted state curriculum documents to look like local school district documents. That's been accomplished in many states, including Nevada, at a great dollar cost.

While AFT's grade for Nevada was a B, Ed Week's grade was an A-. What's the difference? Well, Ed Week gave points if teachers graduated from an institution accredited by National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Out of more than 1,000 teacher preparation programs in the country, approximately 500 are accredited by NCATE. Some institutions are not accredited at all, some are accredited by other bodies. Ed Week also gave points if the state developed standards in math, English/language arts, science and social studies and planned to test those areas for graduation.

The problem we had with the grading states a couple of years ago still persists today. The criteria for the grades are different among the groups doing the grading. So, Fordham gives the state a C, Ed Week an A-. Does that mean states receiving an A have better or more rigorous standards than states with a C? Better read the fine print before you jump to that conclusion.

For whatever reason, I was identified as an expert in implementing state standards by the Council of Chief State School Officers. At that particular meeting, I asked the AFT representative if they evaluated the scope, sequence and attainability of standards. The answer was no. To be honest, it was a loaded question. I knew the answer, but others around the table were a little surprised.

There are a number of ways to increase educational standards. In Nevada, for instance, the state could raise the passing score on high stakes tests. That is, rather than just earning a 64 percent to pass the high school proficiency exam to graduate, that bar could be raised 70 or 75 percent. That will get peoples' attention. It would also force students to attain greater mastery of the material.

Another way to raise standards is to study topics more in depth. Rather than have students just memorize rules they don't understand, the state could require more depth by ensuring appropriate development of concepts. So when students are asked why they flip and multiply when dividing fractions, they have a reason besides their teacher told them to. That understanding will result in students being able to think critically and to solve problems.

The initial document approved by Nevada's Council to Establish Academic Standards was based on that model and included process standards to ensure students were more comfortable in their knowledge, understanding, and application of mathematics. However, after the original adoption, the council chose still another method to increase academic standards. The council chose to add more to the curriculum - a third method of increasing educational standards.

So how do you stand? Should student proficiency be determined by a student earning a 64 percent on the high school proficiency exam, a grade equivalent of a D? Should students study the curriculum more in depth to increase student comfort and understanding? Or should we add more to the curriculum before they even mastered those topics requiring teachers to cover material faster?

While all three methods have pros and cons, the one thing I'm certain is if we add more to the curriculum, the passing grade will have to be lowered on proficiency exams and the state will have to come up with a lot more money to remediate students who cannot reach the goal on the first attempt.

Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a member of the Nevada Board of Education. His views do not necessarily reflect those of other members. His e-mail address is


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