Achievement Gap

Give Nevada Credit for Facing Some Hard Truths About Its Schools

This is the second part in a three-part series on Nevada's successes and struggles to turnaround its school system over the next five years. Read the first part in the series here.
I previously wrote about the reckoning Nevada has had to undergo in admitting its educational system wasn’t serving its students well. One major area of improvement we embarked upon was doing a better job of preparing them for college and careers. Two years ago, the Nevada State Board of Education adopted the ACT as the state’s measure of college and career readiness. We now offer the test, for free, to all high school juniors. The decision to provide universal access to the ACT for all Nevada juniors was a deliberate move towards equity and an effort to increase college access to students that otherwise would not have it. All kids, not just the predominantly white, middle-class students who historically took the test in Nevada, can be college material. Since Nevada made the ACT free, the number of students taking the exam has more than tripled, increasing from 9,308 to 32,261 students. Most of the new test takers are Latino students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. But we knew that the decision would shine a spotlight on the harsh reality that we were not doing enough to prepare all students for postsecondary success. As the number of test takers increased, our average score dropped. It fell from 21 to 17.7, putting Nevada in last place among the 18 states that require the test. The pushback was fierce. Some claimed we should not have granted the test to all kids because not all are “college material” and that the results gave Nevada a black eye. But I was proud to see others in our state use the results as a rallying cry to do more for our students.

Moving the Needle Over Time

It was heartening to see that most, despite being disappointed by the results, took the results as motivation to do better for our students. The juniors that took the test last year didn't get the benefit of new programs, such as preschool programs, expansion of full-day kindergarten across the state, third-grade literacy requirements and $25 million for special education and more. There are also new funds for technical education and career- and college-readiness programs at the middle and high-school levels. [pullquote position="left"]We believe over time that will help to move the needle. We also know that the high schoolers we have now who won't get the early education initiatives can't wait and need help now. That's why we have a focus on expanding access to more challenging coursework such as Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, career and technical education aligned to high-growth, high-wage industries, and a renewed emphasis on supporting students based on their ACT and end of course exam performances. As a result, Nevada is now engaged in a positive conversation around preparing our students for postsecondary success. These conversations would not be possible if the state had not agreed to be honest with itself. We now will be able to tackle problems other states cannot, simply because we are willing to admit there is a problem and take action.
Brett Barley
Brett Barley is the deputy superintendent for Student Achievement with the Nevada Department of Education. Prior to joining the Nevada Department of Education, Brett served as a vice president with StudentsFirst, a non-profit organization focused on organizing parents, teachers, and other concerned community members to advocate for great schools for all children. Through this work Brett ...

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