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The test scores from HELL

Last March, the Clark County School District announced that the federal Department of Education had selected Ron Montoya, principal of Valley High School, "as a recipient of the prestigious 2010 Educational Pioneer Award for his outstanding achievements and dedication to educational excellence. … Valley High School is the only school in the history of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to be designated ‘High Achieving — Exemplary Turnaround.’ "

(In fact, at the risk of toning down the enthusiasm a bit, it appears Valley was merely the first Clark County campus to earn the federal "turnaround" title, which is based on year-to-year improvement.)

In May, Mr. Montoya was named "Nevada Principal of the Year" by the Secondary School Principals Association of Nevada, and a finalist for the group’s national award.

"He looks to do what works, not what’s necessarily traditional," Amy Stepinski, dean of curriculum at Valley High, told the Las Vegas Sun in a celebratory profile. "He gives people the authority to do a good job, sets high standards, and we rise to the occasion."

The point here is that parents of kids at Valley High can hardly be blamed if they now assume their kids are in safe hands, advancing well academically.

Doubly so, for sure, at Cheyenne High School, where principal Jeff Geihs was named Nevada Principal of the Year by the same National Association of Secondary School Principals back in 2009.

Meantime, Chaparral High School principal Kevin McPartlin last spring encouraged his kids to go out and picket on the sidewalks against a district plan to shift some administrators to different schools and send others back to classroom teaching, though Mr. McPartlin, a union member, did say, "By contract, the union has to protect its membership. Sometimes that means making the best of a bad decision. …

"We encourage our students all the time to get more involved, and this seemed like a good opportunity for them to put some of that into practice," Mr. McPartlin concluded.

Chaparral is one of the school district’s celebrated "empowerment schools," where the principal is supposedly granted greater autonomy to figure out how to improve academic achievement.

Parents who send their kids to Chaparral — or to Cheyenne, a companion "empowerment school" which the federal government declared to have shown "Adequate Yearly Progress" in the 2009-2010 school year — can hardly be blamed if they figure, faced with such congratulatory publicity, that their kids are on track to be admitted to and do well at most any competitive university.

And surely that impression was reinforced in August, when officials at the Department of Education announced the Clark County School District as a whole had achieved the 2009-2010 benchmarks of the federal "No Child Left Behind Law" in "92 percent" of academic, attendance and graduation categories — that the district overall had made "Adequate Yearly Progress."

"There couldn’t be a better going away present than to make (Adequate Yearly Progress)," beamed retiring Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes, noting that the district as a whole had made adequate yearly progress in three of the past four years, which is "something to be envied by every district in the country."

Wow. So we just keep sending the kids off to their local tax-funded, government-run Clark County schools, and it’s "Harvard here we come"?

Unfortunately, parents swallowing this would be wrong. Very wrong.

— — —

All this hokum contributes to a massive fraud, and one of which the leadership of the Clark County School District is well-aware — a fraud which, because it involves accepting billions of dollars based on a stipend of $12,000 per student from taxpayers on the express assurance that these characters, with their master’s degrees and doctorates in "education," can be trusted to educate all comers, should be a concern to every taxpayer and every local business hoping to hire literate and numerate high school graduates.

If it isn’t actually indictable as a crime of accepting public monies under false representations.

You see, four years ago, superintendent Rulffes grew alarmed at the number of state Millennium Scholarship recipients — local high school graduates with "B" or better averages — who turned out to need remedial education in order to handle freshman-level work upon entering UNLV, which is not exactly M.I.T.

So, to his considerable credit, Mr. Rulffes decided to administer "Common Assessment" tests to find out if kids taking middle-school and high-school classes in Clark County public schools were actually learning what they were supposed to be learning.

The test was modeled on exams which are used internationally, to determine how America’s schoolchildren are advancing compared to those in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, though those involved in creating the local test describe it as featuring "low level questions; find the slope, solve the equation."

At Valley High School, where we started, 93 percent of the kids taking Algebra I in the first semester, 2007, flunked their common assessment test; 71 percent got an "F" in their course work. In 2008, 93 percent flunked the test; 70 percent flunked the course. In 2009, 93 percent flunked the common assessment test; 63 percent got an "F" in the course.

In Algebra II at Valley, the "flunk" rates on the standardized test from 2007 through 2009 went from 88 percent to 85 percent to 78 percent. The "F" course grades remained similarly stable, going from 47 percent to 51 percent to 50 percent.

This is "high achievement?"

A mere 22 percent of Algebra students able to pass a simple standardized test after a full semester in class is an "exemplary turnaround"? What the heck is the Department of Education grading these schools on — how well the kids stack their trays in the cafeteria?

Nor are these statistical aberrations based on low numbers. At Valley, the number of kids taking Algebra I has dropped each year, from 1,022 to 766 to 423. But 423 is still too big a number to be impacted by a few goof-offs. The number of kids taking the Algebra II exam at Valley has fluctuated from 228 to 344.

And note the numbers above mean a sizable percentage of kids who couldn’t pass the district-wide test nonetheless received passing classroom grades, opening the obvious question of grade inflation — a large number of kids whose parents were told they "passed the course" couldn’t demonstrate the required math skills on a standardized test, when no one was available to help them with their homework.

But the main point here is that huge majorities of kids taking Algebra I in the eighth grade are flunking.

No decent teacher can be surprised by such results at the end of a semester. Algebra I, after all, just shows kids a different way to set up the basic math problems they learned to solve in the third through fifth grades. The problems are restated as "solving for X, the unknown." Within 10 days of the opening of classes in the fall, any competent adult standing at the front of these classrooms will have recognized that these eighth-graders don’t know their multiplication tables; they don’t know simple arithmetic.

What is being revealed here is a massive failure of the entire elementary school system, papered over by "social promotions." The algebra teachers give up trying to teach algebra, and instead go back to teaching remedial elementary mathematics.

Rulffes acknowledges this, asking, "Envision yourself in that situation. You’d go back and start teaching math and multiplication tables, wouldn’t you?"

In geometry, at least, the course grades at Valley correlated fairly well with the test scores. Those flunking the common assessment test dropped slightly, from 77 percent in 2007 to 56 percent in 2009. Those receiving "F"s in their course grades actually increased a bit during that same period, though, from 54 percent to 57 percent.

Yet parents were being told all last year it was "Yippee, hooray," Valley High’s principal is winning awards for how well everyone’s been doing.

— — —

And what of the prestigious "empowerment schools"?

At Chaparral High School, the "flunk" rates for the Algebra I common assessment tests in 2007, 2008 and 2009 went 95 percent, 96 percent, 96 percent. The course grades gradually worsened over those years, with 62 percent of the kids taking home report cards showing "F"s at Christmastime in 2007, to 68 percent in 2008, to 73 percent in 2009.

These are not statistical aberrations, either. In each year, 628 to 880 kids took these tests.

In geometry, the "flunk" rates on the standardized test improved only marginally at Chaparral, from 94 percent to 85 percent over the three years, The course grades went downhill: where "only" 46 percent drew "F"s on their report cards in 2007, that number was up to 63 percent last year. Number of kids taking these tests each year? 620 to 720.

And Chaparral High School kids taking the "common assessment" test in "Applied Algebra II" in 2008 certainly set some kind of a record: 113 of them flunked. One child received a "D." That was it. None did any better. A failure rate of 99.12 percent. (And they managed to duplicate this incredible feat the next year — 95 kids took the test; 94 flunked.) Yet the character in charge of this operation thinks his kids have plenty of time to "get involved" by getting their pictures in the paper picketing on the sidewalks against a district decision to shift a few of their overpaid administrators back into the classroom.

Cheyenne High School, with its 2009 "Nevada Principal of the Year," supposedly made "Adequate Yearly Progress" in 2009-2010, according to Arne Duncan and his federal parachute team. But the main thing the numbers there show is rampant grade inflation — kids who can’t pass the test taking home misleading "passing" grades.

At Cheyenne, the Algebra I common assessment test scores held steady — from 96 percent flunking in 2007, to 96 percent flunking in 2009.

After two years, the teaching staff still didn’t know they had a problem? They still want to claim the test is "unfair"?

Meantime, however, in the same years, Cheyenne parents were told 63 to 72 percent of the kids passed Algebra I. Similarly, while 90 to 97 percent of kids flunked the standardized geometry test each year, students carried home report cards informing parents 64 to 72 percent of kids had passed geometry each year.

Take their money, feed them a bunch of bull. What are they going to do about it?

Algebra II? Cheyenne parents were told passing grades improved from 45 to 66 to 71 percent from 2007 through 2009, but in fact the "flunk" rate on the standardized exam tells a more pathetic story: 98 percent, 97 percent, 94 percent … disaster, fraud and professional malfeasance essentially unchanged over three years.

Test scores like those should result in mass firings somewhere — possibly in the elementary schools that promoted these kids, assuring the middle schools and high schools they’d learned simple arithmetic. Instead, the crisis has been consistently papered over with report-card grades that make things look considerably better.

These are not isolated low spots. Yes, a few schools — Boulder City High School, Coronado — have managed to get their failure rates down below 50 percent. But this is the picture across the vast majority of the district’s high schools. The color-coded (green for passing grades, red for "F"s) "Common Assessment Matrix" comparing classroom grades with standardized test scores for each school is public information.

Clark High, an "exemplary turnaround" school? There, 86 to 89 percent fail the common assessment in Algebra I; 93 to 97 percent in Algebra II. The course grades? Solid majorities of kids taking these classes at Clark High flunk.

In Geometry, many schools show closer to 50 percent "pass" rates, possibly because kids get so discouraged after flunking algebra that they manage never to take a more advanced math class, at all, leaving Geometry to a smaller number of kids who actually "get it."

But again and again we see schools where the report cards indicate 62 to 78 percent of kids are "passing" Algebra I, while (in this case, we’re using "West Prep" as our example) the standardized test shows "flunk" rates of 81 to 98 percent.

A similar dichotomy shows up at Basic High, where parents of Algebra II students were told 70 to 74 percent of kids were routinely passing the course. But the common assessment exam demonstrates 88 to 96 percent of the kids can’t do the work; they flunk when given the standardized test.

Nor is this only a problem of "majority-Hispanic, majority poor" schools stuck far inside the "expanding donut" of middle-class suburban affluence. Many might expect affluent Green Valley High School to be doing great. And in truth, at least here we see the course grades well-correlated with the standardized test scores, indicating "grade inflation" is not widely tolerated, which is to the Henderson school’s credit.

But in Algebra I, the "flunk rate" on the common assessment fell only from 79 percent to 53 percent over the three years at Green Valley, as the number of kids taking home "F"s for the course actually increased slightly, from 48 percent to 51 percent. In geometry, Green Valley did better, with "pass rates" on the test doubling from 32 percent to 66 percent over three years, while kids with passing course grades held steady at about 70 percent.

While one or two clowns might try to get every question wrong as an act of rebellion, the scores here reflect the test-taking behavior of thousands of kids. And they’re multiple-choice tests. One thing American schoolchildren are good at is taking multiple choice tests. You may not actually remember how many feet there are in a mile, but given choices "a) 880 yards, b) 528 feet, c) 5,280 feet, d) 52,800 feet," it’s not real hard to narrow it down to two choices and score 50 percent.

What’s that? 50 percent isn’t "a passing grade?" In fact, because the federal government forced Nevada to impose a slightly harder, more realistic High School Proficiency Exam as a graduation requirement this year, the state Department of Education has declared that kids can pass this year’s test and get a high school diploma by answering only 42 percent of the questions correct. Forty-two PERCENT. Needless to say, this was not an easy number to obtain from out of the defensive breastworks of the bureaucracy. State testing officials say the "cut score" was chosen so that people wouldn’t be shocked by seeing the "pass rate" fall way below 40 percent of students.

— — —

Again, it’s not the test. The "control" group here is a sizable group of local middle schools including Rogich, Swainston, Bob Miller, Mannion, Canarelli, Cram, Schofield, and Silvestri Junior High, where both test scores and classroom grades form reasonably well-correlated curves.

Rogich Middle School started out three years ago with 91 percent of kids passing the Algebra I test, and 97 percent of kids carrying home passing grades — the vast majority of those being As and Bs. Valley High School, with all its fraudulent federal accolades, should dream of such results.

But the principal at Rogich clearly decided that wasn’t good enough. For the past two years, the passing course grades and test scores at Rogich have run 100 percent across the board. One hundred percent.

At Swainston Middle School, 96 percent of kids pass both on their classroom grades and their standardized tests. Bob Miller Middle School has pulled up their test scores from 72 percent "pass" to 98 percent. At Canarelli, failure rates were always pretty low, but today "flunk" rates above 2 percent on the exam or above 4.08 percent on the report cards are no longer tolerated.

At Webb Middle School, Principal Paula Naegle saw she had a problem when 77 percent of her kids flunked the common assessment test in 2007. In what may well be the sharpest turnaround in the district, she saw 70 percent of her Algebra I students pass the test in 2008, and 96 percent in 2009.

How would such scores be possible, if the test were somehow unfair or not representative of what kids are supposed to be learning in their classrooms, or if progress was being made impossible by the inability to maintain discipline or any other "excuse of the day"?

I certainly hope no one will assert — albeit properly disguising their prejudice behind talk of "homogeneous student bodies" — that this is simply because most of the kids in these middle schools are white. While living in an affluent neighborhood of literate two-parent households does seem to make a difference, the success of Asian and Jewish sub-populations — even when not wealthy — shows racial heritage and skin color don’t and shouldn’t matter much, though we could argue "culture" does.

— — —

So how do Walt Rulffes and his deputy superintendent for academics, Lauren Kohut-Rost, explain the vast failure of their senior high schools — and by inference, almost certainly, the elementary schools feeding those schools — in teaching basic mathematics?

"I was shocked," he says. "It was the darkest day of my professional life when those scores came in. In many cases we were under the impression the kids were learning algebra, but in many cases they (the algebra teachers) were going back and covering the basics.

"I’ve had superintendents tell me you’re crazy to take this on because you’re exposing yourself. …

"What was further discouraging was as we moved into it, we found some gains, but not nearly what I thought we would given the concentration of staff development we had in place."

But why is it some of the schools that are actually doing so poorly get all these accolades?

"For example … Valley and Chapparal, those are measurements by the federal government," which has different standards, putting a lot of emphasis on attendance and graduation rates, Rulffes explains.

"We, too, were left scratching our heads," Rulffes says. "We saw Valley and Chaparral recognized, so while the federal government has their units of measuring and they’re nice words, I think the proof in the pudding is how well the kids actually do in reading and math. … The High School Proficiency Exam is not of the same rigor as the one that I’m using for the common assessment. In the middle schools we’re doing better, we’re getting to them sooner."

To find out where the problem starts, it would help to do district-wide testing at lower grade levels, Rulffes and Kohut-Rost agree. But unfortunately, "There’s a state moratorium on new testing."

Though many teachers initially complained that the test was unfair, "I don’t believe the test is inaccurate," says Ms. Kohut-Rost.

But to smile and say "Thank you" when the federals report the district is making "Adequate Yearly Progress," when Mr. Rulffes and his associates know the assessment tests prove otherwise — doesn’t that amount to fraud?

While saying he was "uncomfortable with that word," Mr. Rulffes did admit: "I think it’s fair to say there is likely a misconception that a student who doesn’t do well on that common assessment test and does get a good grade in math … I’m saying the parent may be under a misconception that a kid is more ready for college math" than they really are.

— — —

I honor Mr. Rulffes for installing a fairly rigorous exam and sticking with it, closing his ears to all the squawking. At least thanks to those efforts we’ve confirmed and quantified the problem.

But today’s educrats are demanding and receiving billions — billions! — of tax dollars, the biggest pile of treasure devoted to schooling by any culture in the history of the world, all based on their assurances to us that given their advanced degrees in "education" they can do better than some 19th century schoolmarm in a one-room schoolhouse, who would have been fired if she couldn’t teach basic mathematics, and now they say they can’t figure out why 95 percent of the kids are flunking algebra.

This is a fraud vast and systematic enough to destroy a nation from within.

There are real historical models for H.G. Wells’ vision of the Eloi, pretty flower children unable to read the records left by their ancestors, and thus subject to being herded and slaughtered like cattle. By the time modern explorers reached the Yucatan and Guatemala, the descendents of the Maya living among their ancestors’ ruins were unable to interpret any of the writings on the Mayan stellae; they had reverted to stone-age illiterates; they had even lost most of their ancestors’ ability to build canals and practice irrigated agriculture.

How do civilizations fail? Generally, a hidebound culture loses the flexibility to change with changing circumstances. But a large component can also be the loss of their ancestor’s knowledge — the inability to pass along information built up through centuries of tedious trial and error.

These school test results are not counterintuitive. They merely provide a quantifiable measure of phenomena those of us over 50 notice every day — younger people unable to count change if their computer fails, unable to file things in alphabetical order, not merely misspelling words but writing in a way that indicates they can’t even identify nouns from verbs from adjectives, blank looks when we mention anything from King Canute ordering the tide not to rise to Franklin Roosevelt seizing private citizens’ gold (May 1, 1933), multiple daily clues that these younger folks have learned our language aurally, by hearing it spoken, but not visually, by reading the books that form our shared cultural heritage.

I called Paula Naegle, principal of Del Webb Middle School, an extremely cheerful person who obviously loves her work. She was Nevada Teacher of the Year in 1996.

How did she turn around her Algebra I test scores, from a 77 percent failure rate in 2007 to a 96 percent "pass" rate last year, I asked her.

"We did a lot of things," she says. "The first year we didn’t put as much credence in the test as we probably should have. … The kids didn’t take it as seriously as maybe they should have. But then when we saw the results were going to be published in the newspapers, we said we’d better tell our kids to do a better job and we started to take it more seriously. … We have phenomenal staff here."

Naegle was named Principal of the Year for the Southeast Region in 2007. Though I still think it’s strange she won the award three years ago, back when 77 percent of her kids were flunking the common assessment in algebra. Whereas today, after pulling off the fastest, most stunning turnaround in the district (a 96 percent "pass" rate, two years later) the only answer when I ask if she got a big raise, a big award, whether the district hauls in failing principals to ask how her she does it, was … a long silence.

After all, the principal of the year was … Ron Montoya of Valley High.

What’s the solution? In individual schools, obviously, the answer is teachers and principals like Paula Naegle, though perhaps with less of this stifling overlay of "we don’t want to be better than anyone else" solidarity.

For the larger, dysfunctional high schools? Short of dynamite, we won’t see a real turnaround until those administering the worst failing schools are fired en masse, and the structures are put up for bid to those wishing to open private schools, with parents given the choice of where to pay their tuition with vouchers. Either that, or turn them over to local parents groups that would form their own "one-school districts," all their school taxes repealed, at which point they’d be responsible to hire (or re-hire) a few dedicated teachers, free them of all this stifling paperwork, and run the operations by themselves, with no central government interference — the low-cost system that prevailed in this country from the 1600s through about 1925, giving us the most literate and best informed populace in the history of the world.

In my opinion.

Vin Suprynowicz (vsuprynowicz@reviewjournal.com) is the assistant editor of the Review-Journal’s editorial page.

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