Gov. Brian Sandoval's proclamation to encourage reading in Nevada appears to be open to interpretation.
If taken literally, it clashes with a state law from 2009 that prohibits new district-wide testing and appears to impose a new burden on Nevada's financially beleaguered education system.
The proclamation, which Sandoval signed on Monday, his first day in office, urges the Nevada Department of Education and all school districts, private schools and charter schools to "develop and administer a new common assessment that will gauge the reading proficiency of second graders before the end of the current school year."
However, lawmakers in 2009 passed Senate Bill 416 that "absolutely prohibits additional tests," said former Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, who was then chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. "It got the support of both houses, both parties, teachers and students. Everyone believes there is too much testing now."
Currently there is no required statewide test to measure second-graders' reading proficiency. Clark County School District officials estimate that developing a new test for district students alone could cost "in the tens of thousands of dollars."
"We're cutting back on everything, and (Sandoval) wants a new test. There has got to be money that accompanies a requirement. I think it's an unfunded mandate," former State Board of Education member Jan Biggerstaff said.
Sandoval denied the executive order was an unfunded mandate. The proclamation, which is nonbinding, "is to encourage the school districts to do it," Sandoval said Tuesday.
Another test is "not going to improve reading," Biggerstaff contended. "Pretty much everybody knows there's a problem. I think what needs to be done is enforcement of curriculum in the first, second and third grades. The teachers need more time to teach. We are loading them up with so much stuff. If we add another test, that's another test they have to prepare for."
Former assemblyman and state senator-elect Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said the proclamation "could be in conflict with the law." But the Legislature is set to convene in February and could "change the law."
The proclamation calls for "a new common assessment." But Terri Janison, the former Clark County School Board president who now serves as Sandoval's community relations director, said the order does not actually seek new testing. Rather, schools are supposed to work with the tests already in place.
Sandoval simply wants all schools to report second-graders' reading proficiency to the Nevada Department of Education, Janison said.
"I have to assume every district has assessment tools," Janison said. "I knew where my children were every year (in terms of reading ability). I think what the governor is looking for is a reporting mechanism and to keep the focus on it. This is a very simple proclamation."
Dale Erquiaga, chief adviser to Sandoval and a former Clark County School District official, acknowledged SB416 prohibits new district-wide testing of students. But he said reading tests could be administered in some public schools, charter schools and private schools. Those test results could be used to determine whether second-graders are progressing in reading.
Teachers and administrators responded negatively to Sandoval last summer during his gubernatorial campaign when he called for an end to "social promotion" for students not performing at grade level after the third grade, Erquiaga added.
"He was told 'You don't understand. The problems begin earlier than third grade,' " Erquiaga said.
Consequently, the governor thinks that the second-grade reading tests can identify problems that should be corrected before students advance to higher grades.
"There are mechanisms in place for school districts to do (the testing). I believe they have the resources," Sandoval said.
Sue Daellenbach, the Clark County School District's assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability, said the district does assess the reading proficiency of elementary students three times a year as an instructional guide for teachers.
"Regular assessment of reading skills is part of the curriculum," added Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, the state teachers' union.
Warne did not think the governor's proclamation would be "a burden for anyone. I think it's something we're already doing and support."
But the current reading tests in Clark County might not be the kind of measure that the new governor is looking for.
Daellenbach noted that the current reading tests are criterion-referenced assessments, which are a snapshot of a student's grasp of the subject matter at one point in time. They aren't norm-referenced assessments, which allow a student's score to be compared or ranked with other test-takers.
According to the proclamation, the primary motivation for second-grade reading tests is to help the state improve student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, given regularly to students across the country.
The proclamation specifically cites NAEP results that show 43 percent of Nevada fourth-graders tested in 2009 lacked basic reading skills. Nevada's average scale score in reading for all fourth-graders taking the exam was lower than the scores in 43 other states.
Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault has said the NAEP is one of the tests that he is "hammered" on in the Legislature. What people fail to understand is that about 20 percent of the state's K-12 population are non-English speakers, Rheault said.
"By definition, they're probably not going to score very high on the reading test," Rheault told the State Board of Education in December.