If you can’t get a bill passed in Congress telling a federal agency to stop doing something, just slip some language into the appropriate appropriations

Thomas Mitchell

This past week the administrators of the ACT test confirmed what we suspected a month ago when preliminary data were released, Nevada high school students are dead last in the nation in college preparedness.

Nevada students eked out a mere 17.7 points out of a possible 36 points, compared to a nationwide average score of 20.8.

Nevada’s score plummeted from the previous year’s 21 points, which matched the national average, largely because only 40 percent of students took the test then, but the state now requires all students to take the ACT. Other states that made the test mandatory also saw declines as non-college-bound students were added, but none as drastically as Nevada.

Additionally, as reported earlier, 90 percent of Nevada students failed to achieve benchmark scores on all four of the test categories — English, math, reading and science. ACT now reports that this compares to 34 percent nationally, who failed to pass any of the tests.

“This decline in overall readiness can be explained, in large part, by the addition this year of seven more states that funded the ACT for all 11th graders as part of their statewide testing programs,” ACT reported. “Scores went down significantly in each of those seven states, as expected, helping to drive the national average down. In contrast, 22 other states saw score increases this year, and another eight states saw no change. A total of 20 states administered the ACT to all public school graduates in this year’s class.” Only 18 states, including Nevada, reported 100 percent participation.

Additionally, Nevada was dead last in percentage of students meeting the benchmark scores in each of the four test categories, save one. In math, Mississippi students scored 1 point less.

Only 37 percent of Nevada students achieved the benchmark score in English, compared to 61 percent nationally. Only 26 percent met the reading benchmark, compared to 44 percent nationally. Just 21 percent scored adequately in math, compared to 41 percent in the nation. And 18 percent did well enough in science, compared to 36 percent.

“Last year, ACT issued a call to action, urging educators and policymakers to work to improve the education system as a whole,” ACT Chief Executive Officer Marten Roorda was quoted as saying in a press release. “While the drop in scores this year is not indicative of lower achievement overall, we are still seeing far too many students left behind by the nation’s education system. When a third of high school graduates are not well prepared in any of the core subject areas, college and career readiness remains a significant problem that must be addressed. It is critical that we continue to work hard to improve.”

The Las Vegas newspaper quoted Steve Canavero, state superintendent of public instruction, as saying the test results are unacceptable. “We can do more, and our students can do more, and our system can do more,” he said. “Poverty, mobility, diversity cannot be an excuse.”

That the system can do more has yet to be proven.

The 2015 Legislature raised $1.5 billion in new taxes, much of that earmarked for public education, but most of that targets the lower grades, meaning results, if any, will not be evident for years.

The state Supreme Court has heard arguments in court cases challenging the state law establishing education savings accounts that would allow parents to opt out of the failing public school system, but has yet to rule.

Admittedly, the additional 60 percent of graduates who took the ACT test this year had no real incentive to perform well on the test if they had no plans to enroll in college, but neither did non-college-bound graduates in other states.

If the ACT is ever going to provide a baseline or benchmark by which parents and lawmakers can compare our schools to those in other states and hold our educators accountable, the stakes for graduates need to be raised. The state currently has no test to prove high schoolers have earned a diploma.

We suggest the state use the ACT test results — probably with lower benchmarks than those for the college-bound —
to determine whether a diploma actually has been earned and means anything other than a certificate of attendance. That would provide an incentive for students taking the test.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.