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State releases audit exploring whether Nevada is testing too much; teachers union pans final product

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
A student working on classwork at Pat Diskin Elementary School

A new audit evaluating whether the state is doing too much standardized testing concluded the Nevada Department of Education could do a better job of communicating the purpose of various exams and could try to look for ways to get results back faster.

The report, which is up for discussion in the Senate Education Committee on Friday, came about after lawmakers requested it through SB303 in the 2017 session. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, said the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act began an era of testing that has gotten out of hand.

“These tests have become an impediment to doing the underlying activity they were intended to measure — the education of our children,” Woodhouse, a former teacher, testified in 2017. “This bill is an important step in regaining a balance between our need to educate our students and our desire for accountability.”

The 41-page independent audit, conducted by nonprofit, nonpartisan research agency WestEd and funded by a $100,000 appropriation by the Legislature, examined 10 different assessments that the state requires and administers. WestEd reached out to 19 district test directors through online surveys or interviews, and reviewed numerous documents, including the 2016 report from a focus group reviewing Nevada state and district-level assessments.

Among the findings:

  • The results indicate Nevada Department of Education staff “are highly trained and finely attuned to the needs of Nevada school districts,” but suggests that there may be gaps in training and technical assistance because of a lack of funding. Evaluators said the state should work to determine if they can find more money to implement improvements.
  • The audit found “the high-stakes nature of most required annual summative achievement assessments … combined with the considerable time it takes to administer them — may prompt Nevada educators to want more from statewide assessment results than the assessments may be designed to deliver.”
  • Evaluators found that educators generally want the data from testing “to be more granular to inform instruction,” but also want to reduce the amount of time dedicated to testing. The survey concluded “these two findings — wanting shorter tests while, at the same time, wanting more granular results that are both reliable and valid — cannot be simultaneously addressed in a single annual statewide achievement test.”
  • The report noted that annual tests are more useful for evaluating school performance and student progress and informing schoolwide instructional decisions, than to help fine-tune ongoing classroom-level decisions.
  • Evaluators said they noticed a need for more “assessment literacy training” so educators understand the purpose of various tests and how they can or cannot be used to improve instruction.
  • The audit found that educators most wanted timely results from the tests. Evaluators suggested the state should look for efficiencies that would speed up turnaround time for results, but that the state should also communicate the steps the state and testing companies must take to ensure accurate results.
  • The study also found some tests were more popular than others. High school educators found the ACT, the WIDA evaluation for English language learners and career and technical education assessments were fulfilling their purpose, while they reported that end-of-course exams were less useful.

The Nevada State Education Association was critical of the report. The teachers union said it came more than a year after the legislatively set deadline of Dec. 1, 2017, and did not include a plan on how to streamline testing, as the bill specified.

"The Department’s report is written with a certain result in mind that simply does not conform to the realities in our classrooms," NSEA said in a statement. "While tests like the SBAC [Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium] and End of Course exams are widely disliked, the Department recommends more funding to communicate to stakeholders about the 'benefits' of these assessments. Educators know about the benefits and shortcomings of these tests and appreciate the need to spend less time testing and more time teaching. It is that simple."

WestEd also provided an analysis that compares Nevada’s testing requirements with those of other states. Below are the audit and the comparative analysis.

WestEd Audit of Nevada Stan... by on Scribd

WestEd State-by-State Stand... by on Scribd

This story was updated at 7 a.m. on Feb. 22, 2019 to add a statement from NSEA.

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