Clark County School District officials blamed more rigorous state tests for a significant decline in reading proficiency rates at the middle and high school levels.
Middle school math scores would have been just as bad if the state Board of Education hadn't temporarily lowered the bar for passing that portion of Nevada's criterion-referenced tests, district officials told Clark County School Board members Thursday.
Higher academic standards, pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to raise standards for English language arts, and the state's ongoing transition to using the Common Core, a set of national curriculum standards, have contributed to the downward spiral in student test results.
As a result of increased academic expectations, the state exams that measure student proficiency have been revised over the past two years, with the new reading tests administered in 2010-11.
"The bar has been stepped up," said Sue Daellenbach, assistant superintendent for accountability and assessment. "The rigor is much higher than it has been in previous years."
A presentation at Thursday's School Board meeting showed:
■ District proficiency rates in sixth-grade reading fell from 62.8 percent in 2010 to 54.5 percent in 2011.
■ Seventh-grade reading proficiency rates dropped from 72.9 percent in 2010 to 53 percent in 2011.
■ Reading proficiency rates for eighth-grade plummeted from 65 percent in 2010 to 43.7 percent in 2011.
■ Among first-time test-takers of Nevada's high school proficiency exam, the rate of students passing the reading exam dropped from 77.6 percent in 2010 to 47.7 percent in 2011.
Superintendent Dwight Jones cautioned that the public may see things "get worse before they get better. We're going to be honest with the community."
"It's a tough change, but it will be well worth it in the end," said Daellenbach, adding that the harder tests will better prepare students for the future.
Nevada revised its math testing two years ago, but poor performance has been hidden by temporarily lowering the score needed to pass, officials said. In seventh-grade math, for example, 50 percent would have passed under the old passing score, but the temporarily lowered score allowed 68 percent to pass.
Because the state will revert to the higher passing score for math in 2012-13, Clark County Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez predicted math scores probably will go down. "It will hit us pretty hard," he said.
Martinez said school performance on the tests were consistent across the district. He added that schools across the state also are struggling.
"This is a statewide issue," he said.
Daellenbach said the declining test scores will hurt schools assessed under the standards of No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law.
Those results will be released in mid-August, but Daellenbach said the district as a whole did not show a reduction in nonproficient students, which is one of the ways a school can demonstrate adequate yearly progress.
Not all the news was bad as there were bright spots at the elementary school level. Among fifth-graders, the percentage of students passing the reading test increased to 61.5 percent in 2011 from 52.4 percent in 2010.
Overall, School Board President Carolyn Edwards acknowledged "we're not in a good spot now. We all need to recognize it." She urged the superintendent not to downplay failure.
"No excuses," Edwards said. "Let's get the job done."
Contact reporter James Haug at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-374-7917.