Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell Commentary

The Nevada Department of Education is reporting that 90 percent of state high school juniors are not college ready, largely unchanged from the previous year and probably the worst of any state in the nation, according to the most recent results of ACT testing.

We say probably because the nationwide results will not be released for another month, but ACT test results across the country have been remarkably and regrettably stagnant for years.

The ACT sets benchmark scores in each of four educational testing categories — English, math, reading and science. Failure to reach those benchmarks indicates a lack of college preparedness.

Only 10 percent of Nevada students achieved the benchmarks in all four categories, compared to 28 percent nationally this past year. Fully 60 percent of Nevada students failed to achieve benchmark scores in any category, compared to 31 percent nationally.

On the English test, 34 percent of Nevada high schoolers achieved the benchmark score of 18. In math, only 18 percent reached the benchmark of 22. In reading, 24 percent managed to surpass 22 points. In science, only 17 percent reached 23 points.

A benchmark score is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or better or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or better in the credit-bearing college courses.

Nevada’s public school students posted a composite score of 17.4 out of a possible 36 on the ACT exam, unchanged from the previous year. In recent years the national average has hovered around 21 points.

Nevada has required all students to take the ACT in the past two years. In 2014 when only 36 percent of state students took the test the composite score was slightly above the national average at 21.2 — presumably those test takers were largely college-bound students. No state posted a composite score of less than 18.2 that year.

Only 14 states require all students to take the exam, but even among those Nevada comes up last when compared to the previous year’s percentage of students ready for college, according to data compiled by the Reno Gazette-Journal. The other 13 ranged from 13 percent college ready in Mississippi to 26 percent in Illinois.

Nearly 2 million high school students, about 60 percent of all high schoolers, take the ACT each year, making it highly reliable for cross-state and cross-district comparisons.

Nevada chose to administer the ACT to all students in 2014 and did away with high school proficiency exams students had needed to pass to graduate. Steve Canavero, Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a press release, “We knew then that we were not doing enough to prepare our students for college and career and we know now that we still have a long way to go. Nevada needs to use these results as the legislature, governor, and state board intended; as a statewide cry that our students deserve more and Nevada’s economy demands more.”

The state Education Department posted the percentage of students in each county who achieved benchmark scores in all four testing categories: Churchill, 7 percent; Clark, 9; Douglas, 16; Elko, 9; Eureka, 25; Humboldt, 8; Lander, 4; Lincoln, 6; Lyon, 6; Mineral, 3; Nye, 5; Carson City, 13; Pershing, 5; Storey, 0; Washoe, 13; White Pine, 6. A majority of counties saw college preparedness results drop from 2015 to 2016. Esmeralda County has no high school.
The state Education Department press release indicated that 2015 ACT results established a new baseline for student performance, and “with performance levels staying stable in the second year of testing, parents, teachers and students can feel confident in the foundation that has been established.”

One person’s stable is another’s stagnant, and last in the nation is the bottom rung from which to climb.

“It’s not the baseline we want for Nevada students,” Canavero said. “But, it’s the baseline we have and one I’m asking the state to rally around to change.”

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

Over the past four decades, Nevada has increased public school funding by 80 percent per pupil, adjusted for inflation, but test scores have actually fallen slightly.

At the end of the month, the state Supreme Court will take up cases challenging the state law establishing education savings accounts that would allow parents to opt out of this failing system.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at He also blogs at