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Study finds sequence of curriculum out of kilter

The wheels on Nevada’s vehicle for public education are out of alignment.

The sequence of lessons taught from one grade level to the next is out of whack, according to a study of elementary and middle schools commissioned by the Legislature.

It found that only 40 percent of math assignments given in the eighth grade reflected grade level work; 18 percent of the eighth-grade math assignments were more consistent with lessons taught in grades six or lower.

The curriculum disconnect was worse at the higher grade levels. The study found that fifth-grade content in English, for example, reappeared in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The lessons seemed stuck on repeating low-level grammar lessons instead of advancing to teach writing skills.

"The further away you get from the third grade, the less grade-level material is being offered," said Ben Jones, a researcher for the Standards Company in Clovis, Calif., which was commissioned by the Legislature earlier this year to study curriculum in grades three to eight.

The report, to be published in its entirety at the end of the year, warns that the lack of curriculum alignment "could potentially be limiting student achievement." It calls for more professional development for teachers and more rigor in the classroom. The study did not include high school, but researchers said a study of those grades is warranted.

Jones said the lack of alignment is "like cutting your feet out from under you. If you don’t have a solid foundation, your achievement suffers."

The report stunned state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who is the chairwoman of the Council to Establish Academic Standards.

"I think we’re all taken aback," she said. "It’s kind of a blow."

Nevada Superintendent of Schools Keith Rheault said the report contained "useful guidance" but also acknowledged a common principal and teacher point of view: students coming into higher grades might not be as prepared as they should be. Rheault said schools may have to do more end-of-grade testing to make sure students have learned the required material.

Mike Barton, principal of the Clark County School District’s West Preparatory Institute, which participated in the study, said classes should be teaching only grade-level content but explained, "We’re always doing remediation."

Transiency, or the high turnover of students, the lack of learning at the earlier grade levels and lack of parental involvement in their child’s education all contribute to the need for remediation, educators said.

As far as curriculum alignment goes in Clark County, the school district passed an audit by the state Department of Education three years ago, said Jhone Ebert, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development. She could not respond specifically to the new study because she has not seen it. An executive summary was released by the Council to Establish Academic Standards on Oct. 23, but the final report won’t be published until December.

This is the not the first indication that alignment is off in the Clark County School District. End-of-semester math exams based on the curriculum resulted in districtwide failure last year.

The lack of alignment might also explain why many students lose interest in school. Students who get stuck listening to the same old lessons are "literally tuning out," said Christopher Cox, a consultant to the state Council to Establish Academic Standards.

The lack of consistency in teaching the state-mandated curriculum is particularly disadvantageous to students in Clark County, where it’s not uncommon for students to switch schools often, Cox said.

Transfer students are likely to be bored because their new classes offer old material or else the students might be unable to follow the new subject matter their former schools didn’t prepare them for, Cox said.

Educators historically have struggled to determine how much review is appropriate for students. In an attempt to address that, Nevada provides very specific academic standards. The guidelines exist so that the fourth-grade teacher will know where the third-grade teacher left off, Cox said.

To determine whether educators are following state-mandated curriculum, researchers examined 109,099 examples of class assignments, quizzes and homework given to students at 100 elementary and middle schools in Nevada between March and May.

Rheault said one weakness of the study is that it only reflects written assignments and not what teachers verbally taught in the classroom.

Clark County was represented in the study by 55 schools. Elementary schools reviewed were: Bell, Bendorf, Darnell, Dearing, Deskin, Detwiler, Diskin, Gibson, Kahre, Martha King, Perkins, Petersen, Heard, Helen Smith, Indian Springs, Priest, Red Rock, Rowe, Rundle, Stanford, Tate, Thiriot, Twitchell, Vandenburg, Watson, Wilhelm, and Williams.

The local middle schools studied were: Bailey, Becker, Brinley, Cadwallader, Canarelli, Cannon, Cashman, Cortney, Findlay, Fremont, Garrett, Gibson, Hyde Park, Indian Springs, Johnston, Lawrence, Leavitt, Lyon, Mack, Monaco, Miller, Robison, Rogich, Sandy Valley, Saville, Sedway, Von Tobel and West Prep.

The cross-section of schools studied shows that lack of curriculum alignment is not an equity issue, Jones said. The problem cropped up at schools rich and poor, urban and rural. The failure to teach to the state standards also was evident at both low-performing schools and high-performing schools.

What separates the low-performing from the high-performing schools appears to be the more demanding homework given at the higher performing schools, Jones said.

The study also examined the depth of knowledge required by school homework assignments and whether the assignments encouraged higher-order thinking, such as analysis or reaching an independent judgment.

In comparison to higher performing schools, the study found lower performing schools were giving less sophisticated and less-rigorous math assignments in grades four through eight.

Schools in low-income neighborhoods also gave out higher letter grades than schools in more affluent areas. In the three breakout categories for low, medium and high-performing students, those at low-income schools got higher marks than their peers at schools in more affluent areas.

At poorer schools, for instance, 80 percent of high-performing eighth-graders got A’s on their math and English assignments. Only 67 percent of their high-performing peers at affluent schools got A grades in the same subjects.

Cox believes that teachers at poorer schools give out higher grades because they want to encourage students who are "showing some progress," but the teachers are actually doing a disservice.

"You’ve misled them," he said. "It destroys the credibility of the process."

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-799-2922.

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