Next Up Blog

Submission for the Nevada Commission on School Funding

Schools that serve our learners at higher risk of dropping out work within the day-to-day reality that success in this crucial work generally carries higher operational costs. Nevada faces an important opportunity to align funding for at-risk learners with these increased costs.

Learners are considered at risk because each possesses specific risk factors associated with an increased likelihood of dropping out of school. Research broadly indicates that learners with these risk factors are more likely to be from our poorest households, and that one risk factor typically goes hand in hand with others.

Meeting the health, counseling, nutritional and other needs for students with multiple risk factors is essential to supporting their readiness to learn. Both academic intervention work and non-academic “wraparound services,” and the specialized, licensed staffing necessary to provide them, increase the distinct costs for schools of serving these learners effectively.

Nevada education law currently defines an at-risk student according to one metric only: a learner who is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program. Although the State Board of Education is given discretion to establish different definitions, and this commission is historically positioned to encourage such new approaches, hopefully by thoughtfully considering models underway in other states.

This current Nevada definition describes students whose household incomes fall within 185 percent of the federal poverty definition, or $47,600 for a family of four. There is no difference in the amount of weighted funding each eligible Nevada student may receive, based upon how far below this line their household income may fall, or any other factor.

Additional weighted per-student funding is assigned for students identified within this category, along with students identified as English Language Learners, students with disabilities, or gifted and talented students. A student only receives additional weighted funding for one of these four categories, regardless of how many of these groups the student may belong to.

Other states utilize many different factors to determine a student’s at-risk status, and these factors often receive different relative weights with regard to funding. Each of these factors are important to a child’s education because their presence frequently makes it more expensive for schools to address meaningfully so as to give these students equitable access to educational opportunity alongside their peers who do not possess these risk factors.

Pertinent examples from among the different definitions utilized by states to determine a student’s at-risk status for weighted school funding (and sometimes school accountability as well) include:

Utah: students who demonstrate any of: low performance on state tests, poverty, mobility, Limited English Proficiency, chronic absenteeism and homelessness.[i]

Iowa: homeless children and youth, dropouts, returning dropouts, and potential dropouts.[ii] Students eligible for free and reduced-price meals also receive weighted funding.[iii]

Michigan: students are eligible for at-risk funding if they meet one of a set of 10 criteria that include being economically disadvantaged, an English Language Learner, chronically absent, a victim of child abuse or neglect, and a pregnant teen or teen parent.[iv]

Minnesota: students eligible for free lunches receive additional at-risk student funding at a higher level than students eligible for reduced-price lunches.[v]

Georgia: students who test below grade level proficiency in English Language Arts or math receive additional funding, at levels dependent upon their grade levels.[vi]

Alabama: students who are members of economically disadvantaged families, students who are at risk of dropping out of high school, and students who do not meet minimum standards of academic proficiency.[vii]

District of Columbia: students in foster care, are homeless, eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or behind grade level.[viii]

Additionally, other significant student dropout risk factors identified by the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University and Communities in Schools include: poor attendance, retention/over-age for grade, low educational expectations, misbehavior, family disruption, sibling has dropped out.[ix]

As this distinguished commission proceeds in its historic mission, to align Nevada’s school funding system with actual costs, it does so in the face of many real pressures. Nevada’s most at-risk learners and the educators who serve them face many real pressures each day as well. Joining these opportunities has vast potential for education good.

 

[i]Utah Office of Administrative Rules, Utah Administrative Code, Rule R277-708-3. Allocation of Enhancement for At-Risk Student Funds.

[ii] 281 Iowa Administrative Code, 12.2 (256).

[iii] 281 Iowa Administrative Code, 97.3 (257).

[iv] “Gretchen Whitmer Has a Dramatic Plan to Send Schools More Money for Needier Kids,” Chalkbeat Detroit, by Lori Higgins and Koby Levin, March 4, 2019.

[v] Minnesota House Research Department: Minnesota School Finance: A Guide for Legislators, November 2019, p. 101.

[vi] Education Law Center, QBE Primer: Georgia School Funding for At-Risk-Students, August 2019, p. 1.

[vii] Alabama School Choice and Student Opportunity Act (At 2015-3, Section 4, 3).

[viii] Code of the District of Columbia, 38-2905, Supplement to Foundation Level Funding.

[ix] “Dropout Risk Factors and Exemplary Programs: A Technical Report,” National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University and Communities in Schools, Inc., 2007.

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Growth and proficiency are the two crucial dimensions by which most American education systems, and the performance of the students they serve, are currently measured.

Nevada’s education trajectory today is best characterized in terms of growth, as most any Nevada educator will attest. “Fastest Improving State in the Nation,” has been a recurring catchphrase of Nevada’s Department of Education, and was the title of its 2019 annual report to the governor and legislature.

Consequently, students’ academic growth over time is one of the central components to Nevada’s Five-Star system for evaluating its public elementary and middle schools. The rate of students at grade-level proficiency is the other central component.

2018-19 Top Math Growth/High FRL Elementary Schools

RefSchoolDISTRICTMath - School MGPFRL %
1Mater MT Vista ESSPCSA8291%
2Dondero ESClark7882%
3Sandy Valley ESClark7794%
4NV Prep ESAchievement7690%
5Diaz ESClark75100%
6Meneley ESDouglas7557%
7Hawthorne ESMineral7551%
8Caliente ESLincoln7455%
9Mater North NV ESSPCSA7381%
10Maxwell ESWashoe7284%

The number of Nevada’s highest-growth public schools serving lower-income student populations provides a powerful indication that our quest to be America’s fastest-improving education state is on sound footing.  Many educators feel that student growth is the preferred indicator of a particular school’s performance, better and fairer because students arrive with their own, different learning trajectories and levels of preparedness, the result of numerous factors including schools attended previously. This often holds especially true when evaluating schools serving students from lower-income households, who often have higher mobility rates than their peers.

More than three out of five students in Nevada public schools are eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch program (different measures by different government agencies calculate slightly different rates). In fact, Nevada’s education laws define this eligibility, by measure of household income, as what determines whether students are considered to be “At-Risk.” A student can be eligible for reduced-price meals if their family income is at 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

2018-19 Top ELA Growth/High FRL Elementary Schools

Ref.SchoolDistrictELA - School MGPFRL %
1Cambeiro ESClark82100%
2Maxwell ESWashoe7584%
3Diaz ESClark75100%
4Gehring ACAD ESClark7450%
5Corbett ESWashoe7091%
6Smith Helen ESClark69.568%
7Bryan Richard ESClark68.555%
8Hillside ESStorey6859%
9Mater North NV ESSPCSA6881%
10Ronzone ESClark6898%

Which Nevada public schools have the highest rates of student growth while also serving student populations of whom fifty percent meet this definition? These schools comprise Nevada’s Equity/Growth All-Stars – elementary and middle schools with the highest scores for student growth in English Language Arts (ELA) and math for the 2018-19 school year.

These All-Star schools are located all across the state – in eight of Nevada’s 18 school districts, including seven charter schools under the supervision of the State Public Charter School Authority. The list includes rural, urban and schools in-between, and five serving more than 95 percent designated low-income students.

2018-19 Top Math Growth/High FRL Middle Schools

RefSchoolDistrictMath-School MGPFRL %
1NV Prep MSAchievement9490%
2Mater North NV MSSPCSA9181%
3DP Agassi MSAchievement8475%
4Mater MT Vista MSSPCSA7791%
5Sandy Valley MSClark7594%
6Amargosa Vly MSNye7298%
7Fremont MSClark7195%
8Cram MSClark6861%
9Equipo ACAD MSSPCSA6878%
10Laughlin JSHS MSClark6770

The Clark County School District is home to 13 of the All-Stars on this list. One of these, John C. Fremont Middle School, appears on the list of top growth schools in both ELA and Math, located in a zip code in the heart of the city, with an average household income well below the average for Las Vegas. The other CCSD school appearing on both top lists, Ruben P. Diaz Elementary School, is in the neighborhood around Nellis Air Force Base, where household income resides just above the $53,000 Las Vegas average.  A charter school authorized by CCSD, 100 Academy of Excellence in North Las Vegas, made the list of top middle schools for growth in math.

Nevada Prep public charter school in Las Vegas was the top middle school in the state for student growth in both math and English Language Arts, while serving a student population with nine out of ten students eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch. “We focus a lot on culture. People won’t work this hard unless they’re doing it for a shared mission and for peers and students they value,” observes David Blodgett’s founder and executive director David Blodgett.

Mater Academy of Northern Nevada earned grand slam All-Star status with student growth performance placing it in the top ten of all public schools in the state on all four lists.  “We believe that every student who walks through the doors of Mater Academy of Northern Nevada deserves respect and support, no matter what their situation is or was,” explains principal Gia Maraccini. “We strive to build real relationships with our students. We provide them with a strong support system so that when life’s challenges come along, we work together as a school community to overcome them.”  All three Nevada Mater Academy public charter schools appeared on the list of Nevada’s Equity/Growth All-Stars.

Students’ academic growth means the amount of academic progress they have made over time. In Nevada, as in most states, this is measured annually based on how each individual learner performs on the statewide standardized test (the Smarter Balanced Assessment, or SBAC) currently, from how they performed the previous year, compared with their peers. Schools are evaluated on growth as a percentile level, more precisely described as a Median Growth Percentile, or MGP, based upon all of their students’ performance. A student with an MGP of 60 has growth exceeding 60 percent of their peers, for example.

2018-19 Top ELA Growth/High FRL Middle Schools

Ref.SchoolDistrictELA-School MGPFRL %
1NV Prep MSAchievement8190%
2Mater North NV MSSPCSA8181%
3Mater MT Vista MSSPCSA8091%
4DP Agassi MSAchievement68.575%
5Fremont MSClark6795%
6Mater Bonanza MSSPCSA6789%
7100 Academy 6-8 MSClark66100%
8Equipo ACAD MSSPCSA6578%
9Quest Northwest MSSPCSA6469%
10Laughlin JSHS MSClark6370%

Nevada’s official School Performance Framework measures the performance of elementary and middle schools based on two different growth measures – the MGP, as well as an application of both growth and proficiency, called the AGP, or “Adequate Growth Percentile.” The AGP is a calculation for each student based on how far away they are from grade-level proficiency, and how much growth is required to reach that level in five years or by the end of 12th grade.

Because MGP relies on growth only, and not proficiency, it can be considered less reliant on factors researchers could deem “background noise” reflective of other factors besides the effectiveness of the school a student currently attends.

What insights can these Equity/Growth All-Star Schools offer educators looking to improve their own student growth?  While this topic is worthy of building a deeper understanding, a number of prominent practices stand out.  School culture focused around academic growth seems a prevalent priority, as are certain other practices.

“We have an extra math period and an extra ELA period every day,” explains Nevada Prep’s David Blodgett. “We call these classes power hour, and we have multiple teachers in the room providing support and interventions at students’ different levels.”

Schools’ support for classroom teachers through help providing timely, actionable information on student progress to help them target interventions and extra help is another priority at many of these high-growth campuses.  Regular meetings with teachers and coaches to discuss pedagogical strategies and specific lessons to build on strength and weaknesses, and meet students “where they are” in their learning, often become pillars of the schools’ culture for teaching and learning.

Equitable access to high-quality schools for all learners, regardless of their economic or other circumstances, should be a fundamental goal for any system of education. The educators working in the schools on these lists, and the families fortunate enough to be served in their classrooms, can be proud that their schools are making important strides to achieving this equity in their school communities.

Congratulations to the hard-working educators working at the schools on this list, and the leaders who support them – you are making a difference.

Please join us Saturday morning, December 7 for this Free Parent Workshop – a discussion with experts on strategies to keep your child’s learning on track during school breaks.  Educators call it the “Vacation Slide,” and you can avoid it.  Topics include recommended free or inexpensive digital learning software.  Please RSVP to events@NevadaAction.org or 702-202-3573.

Results released today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card, seem to reinforce what educators have observed for decades – that making gains in academic proficiency for substantial populations of students generally remains a slow and difficult process.

For Nevada students in the eighth grade, 26 percent scored at grade-level proficiency or above in mathematics — the same level as in 2015, and two percentage points lower than their 2017 results.

In reading, Nevada’s eighth-grade students scored at or above proficient at a rate of 29 percent, or one percentage point above their performance in both 2015 and 2017, a gain considered not statistically significant by researchers.

Particularly concerning was the proportion of eighth-grade students, 38 percent in math and 31 percent in reading, who demonstrated skills considered “Below Basic” by the authors of the test. These results were three percentage points higher in math and two percentage points higher in reading than they were in 2015.

For eighth grade students, scoring at “Below Basic” levels on NAEP is usually considered a distressing predictor that these students will fail to graduate high school on time.  

Students demonstrating “Below Basic” skills in math indicate that they lack “partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade.” In reading, “Below Basic” skills mean that they are unprepared to find information in a document or make connections between simple concepts in two different texts.

Steep achievement gaps between groups of students remain a troubling characteristic indicated by Nevada’s NAEP performance.  Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch program remain twice as likely to score at “Below Basic” levels as their classmates who are not eligible.  In fact, half of all program-eligible students scored “Below Basic” in math, and 40 forty percent did so in reading.

Gaps along lines of race and ethnicity continue to prove just as problematic.  Among African-American eighth grade students, 62 percent scored “Below Basic” in math, while 44 percent did so in reading.  Hispanic eighth graders earned “Below Basic” scores at rates of 46 percent in math and 39 percent in reading, nearly twice the rate for white students.

Students in Nevada’s public charter schools performed at substantially higher levels — 26 percent proficient or above in math and 37 percent in reading, with 23 and 17 percent percent demonstrating skills at “Below Basic” levels, at the eight grade.

Federal officials responsible for NAEP have only recently been able to break out charter school students’ scores as the number of students served has increased.  But because Nevada’s charter schools overall serve student populations with real differences in certain demographic characteristics — 36 percent of state public charter school students were eligible for free or reduced price lunches as opposed to 61 percent of public school students overall — comparisons of student outcomes between the two sectors is complicated.  

It should be noted that moving toward greater demographic parity with state averages has been a priority for Nevada charter sector leaders, who have reported significant progress toward this goal on a yearly basis.

The NAEP is administered every other year at grades four, eight and twelve.  

The absence of compelling achievement gains will register as frustrating for Nevada’s education leaders.  But educators know that improved outcomes will not happen by magic. Large-scale improvements in our public education systems and the student academic outcomes they produce cannot be expected to happen overnight.  

At the rate of progress indicated by these latest NAEP results, such improvements are likely to take decades, absent major changes to the systems which drive them.  Decisionmakers intent on improving Nevada’s school outcomes in real, meaningful ways must begin with the fundamental step of acknowledging, and accepting responsibility, for making such changes a reality.