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November 27, 2014

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Education:

State education chief, on job about 100 days, tackling tall test ahead of him

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AP Photo/Cathleen Allison

Dale Erquiaga gives a press briefing Friday, May 27, 2011, at the Capitol in Carson City. At the time, Erquiaga was a senior adviser to Gov. Brian Sandoval. Erquiaga is now the state superintendent of public schools.

Nevada Superintendent Dale Erquiaga has big plans for the state’s struggling education system.

The Silver State’s new education leader has been on the job for about 100 days, diving headfirst into school reform efforts he believes will improve student outcomes.

The Sun recently spoke with Erquiaga about several statewide education on which initiatives he is working.

What’s your top priority right now?

We are in the middle of implementing all of the reforms started under Gov. Jim Gibbons and continued under Gov. Brian Sandoval. We are moving toward more rigorous academic standards. With these new standards come new assessments and new accountability systems for teachers, principals and schools. Over the next three years, we’re focused on implementing all of that and demonstrating improvement.

The Nevada Board of Education is looking at several new standardized tests for students in both the elementary and secondary levels. They’re looking at new computerized tests for elementary and middle school students that will be aligned to the new, more rigorous Common Core academic standards. They’re also replacing the high school proficiency exam with four end-of-course exams as well having high school juniors take a new college- and career-readiness exam, such as the ACT, to better prepare them for postgraduation. Why is the state changing its standardized tests?

It's a new era for us. We have an opportunity with the new high school tests to get a lot more information that will be valuable for teachers. We’re focusing a lot of testing and accountability, but we need to focus on what we do after the tests. I don’t want to preside over a filing cabinet for test data. Instead, I want to look at what we learn from these test results to improve our schools.

Some parents and teachers across the country argue American students are being overtested. How do you respond to those critics?

I don’t think we overtest. We certainly test a lot. But again, it’s about what are we doing with those test results. Are we using them to help students or just using them for accountability purposes? It’s not enough to tell parents that their children’s school is underperforming. We have to improve it. We need to play a bigger role in turning schools around.

Students aren’t the only ones getting new tests. Teachers and principals are getting a new evaluation system, which is being piloted this year but won’t be finalized until the 2016-2017 school year. How is that coming along?

The educator performance framework is really an excellent body of work. We want to use this information to help teachers get better at teaching, not make hiring-and-firing decisions. Eventually, though, districts will have to deal with ineffective teachers, just like any business. We also realize that the key to turning a school around is the building leadership. We want to support principals, who in turn support teachers. I think we’re doing it right by going slow and steady.

Most states, after setting up a new teacher evaluation system, use those results to put in place a pay-for-performance system to reward the more effective teachers. Is that the plan for Nevada?

A 2011 law allows school districts to work on a performance-based evaluation system. I encourage all districts to begin moving more aggressively in that direction. There’s nothing standing in their way. We need to begin prototyping and validating a performance-based system. By 2017, we may see a statewide performance-based system.

Recently released education rankings and national test scores have continued to peg Nevada students at the bottom of the country. What needs to be done to change that?

We have some areas of progress, but there’s no doubt we are at the bottom of these rankings nationally, and that has to change. There’s no question that Nevada has a long way to go before Nevada is on par with the nation and other countries. Our goal is to provide the best possible education for every child. I hope to effect as much change with these reforms. That’s why I took this job.

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