Karen Villatoro Gonzalez can still see the effects of the pandemic in her students.
She teaches medicine to sixth graders at Fremont Middle School — a magnet program in Las Vegas — and says even after returning to in-person instruction, many students are not where they should be academically and socially.
“Missing all of that intellectual gain to a whole school year, of course we’re still having deficiencies, of course we’re still playing catch up,” she said. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I just think it’s still trying to recover from such a big impact in our world.”
This phenomenon is playing out statewide. More than half of Nevada’s public schools reported proficiency loss in English and science in the 2022-23 school year compared with the year before, according to a Nevada Independent analysis of state data released this month.
Math proficiency increased in most schools, but few of the state’s 17 school districts met minimum proficiency goals set by state officials in 2017. Minority groups lagged significantly behind statewide averages, and almost all schools were worse off than they were before the pandemic.
The data, released annually by the Nevada Department of Education (NDE), offers a comprehensive look at public education in the state. The state bases proficiency levels on test performance and defines proficiency as “the successful acquisition of knowledge and skills [students] are expected to learn.”
The findings show how the state’s public schools continue to underperform amid learning loss brought on by the pandemic and school closures. State education officials say the data is proof that the effects of the pandemic are still lingering, but they hope the Legislature’s historic funding of K-12 education this year will lead to better results in the future.
“The pandemic was just a different animal,” said Todd Butterworth, a senior education researcher with the nonpartisan Guinn Center, a Nevada-based think tank. “Only now are we learning what are the long-term effects of that kind of learning loss.”
Jhone Ebert, the state superintendent for public instruction, said in an interview last week that she expects the current school year to show better results.
“We fully expect greater gains,” she said.
Last school year, 40 percent of elementary and middle school students were proficient in English, while 31 percent of those students were proficient in math, according to the NDE data. Less than half of all high schoolers were proficient in English, and less than 20 percent were proficient in math.
Those numbers were particularly low for Black and Hispanic students. Black students were consistently more than 15 percentage points less proficient in English and math compared with statewide averages. Hispanic students tended to trail statewide proficiency rates by around 10 percentage points in both math and English.
The data generally shows drop-offs from the 2021-22 school year, which was the first year Nevada schools returned to fully in-person learning after the pandemic. Across the state’s more than 700 public schools, 60 percent reported decreases in English proficiency and 55 percent saw drops in science proficiency. Math proficiency increased at most schools but still lagged significantly behind English and science rates.
Of the schools that experienced science and English proficiency losses, roughly half saw drops of at least 5 percent. English proficiency rate drops ranged from less than 1 percent to more than 40 percent, though the average rate decrease was around 1.5 percent.
Pandemic-induced learning loss has been well documented nationwide, but Ebert said this data offers proof that even though schools have returned to in-person learning, students are still struggling with the aftershocks of the pandemic.
“We know that students, families are still struggling coming out of the pandemic,” she said.
The schools with proficiency loss were mostly classified as Title I, a federal designation for schools that receive funding to help students from low-income households. The state also has more than 260 schools designated as in particular need of improvement. More than 60 percent of those schools reported an English proficiency loss last school year, while 40 percent of them saw drops in math proficiency.
Most of the state’s schools are located in the Las Vegas area, part of the Clark County School District (CCSD). A map of English proficiency changes in the past two years shows schools across the valley experienced drop-offs, particularly in the lower-income areas in the northern part of the valley. In contrast, most CCSD schools reported gains in math proficiency across the valley.
How can schools improve?
The Legislature this year approved a two-year budget that allocated an additional $2.6 billion for education funding. Legislators also passed a bill directing the state superintendent to establish performance metrics for each grade and make that data available online.
And last week, Gov. Joe Lombardo and Ebert announced the Acing Accountability program, which will establish accountability metrics for student proficiency. The program will track literacy rate growth among students in kindergarten through third grade and math proficiency among students in grades 4 through 8. The initiative will set performance goals and focus on districtwide data.
Lombardo said there are “no more excuses” for students’ decreasing performances. He acknowledged that there is no real ability to enforce the new program yet, except for withholding school funds, which he said would be counterproductive.
“We have demonstrated as a state that when additional funds are provided for education, we have higher student outcomes,” said Ebert, the state superintendent.
However, other education experts emphasized that more education money isn’t a silver bullet.
Butterworth, the education analyst with the Guinn Center, said more research into successful education systems in other countries would be beneficial. He said other nations often have teachers spending less time in classrooms and more time conducting research and learning from each other.
He added that the bill this session to create the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which will study and develop a statewide vision for public education, is a positive step.
“It’s possible to make big changes,” Butterworth said. “It just takes doing the right things, making the right investments and being patient.”
Assemblywoman Erica Mosca (D-Las Vegas), a former teacher and education nonprofit leader, added that there also needs to be more resources and programs that are tailored to different types of students.
“Not everybody learns the same. Not every set of curriculum or practices are going to work on every student,” Mosca said. “When you can get to know them, when you can get to know their families … and then actually have the resources, autonomy and support to do something about it, I have seen it be successful here.”