He wore the cap and gown.
He walked the stage.
He exchanged a handshake for a diploma case.
Rondo Steven Wright was even listed as a diploma candidate in the graduation program, just like everyone else. But Wright didn’t receive a diploma from the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts on Wednesday.
In its place, a certificate of attendance.
“That’s for people who just showed up,” said Wright, frustrated because he passed the required courses and the state-mandated high school proficiency exams in reading, science and math on his first attempts.
He wasn’t able to pass the writing test, but thought he would at least get an adjusted diploma.
The state requires — or required up until two Mondays ago — that students pass all four exams to earn a diploma. The certificate goes to students who meet credit requirements for graduation but fail one or more sections of the proficiency exams.
Although it doesn’t change Wright’s situation, the four proficiency exams are being phased out. The Nevada Legislature decided two days before the school year ended on June 5 that the exams, criticized for being out of alignment with curriculum, will end 2014-15.
But students shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
Four new exams, also required for graduation, will be introduced, but many questions remain. The Nevada State Board of Education made some decisions Thursday, deciding that students who were freshmen, sophomores and juniors in 2012-13 must still take and pass the existing proficiency exams to graduate.
The rationale: It’s bad policy, perhaps illegal, to change students’ graduation requirements midway through high school.
“You end with what you start with; that’s the general rule,” said Stanley Rabinowitz, an education accountability consultant for Nevada.
NO MORE CERTIFICATES OF ATTENDANCE
The certificates of attendance, a consolation prize for almost-graduates like Wright, are also being discontinued.
As a result, Clark County’s 49 high school graduations will look smaller. About 1,000 Clark County seniors received the certificates instead of diplomas each year. They no longer will be allowed to take part in commencement, and they’ll receive nothing showing they met the credit requirements for a diploma but failed the proficiency tests.
Outside Clark County, only about 300 certificates of attendance are handed out annually to Nevada seniors.
“You either graduate or you don’t,” said Interim State Superintendent of Schools Rorie Fitzpatrick , describing how there will be no replacement for the certificate, which confuses students and parents by making them think they have graduated. “And they didn’t.”
After discovering exactly what the certificate means, Wright would have preferred to receive nothing.
The academy prom king was accepted at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, on a singing scholarship.
Wright still needs financial aid, but the university told him he needs a diploma to receive federal financial aid. A certificate won’t do.
“And I can’t get him there,” said Wright’s mother, Stephanie Kuntz, who will have four children in college this year.
If Wright knew his failure on the writing exam would carry such stark consequences — no graduation — he would have sought a GED diploma instead and would have been able to get financial aid today, according to Dixie State’s admissions office.
“I would rather have done that,” Wright said. “Right now, they just make it way too complicated.”
When the transition is complete, all high school students must pass two end-of-course exams in English language arts and two end-of-course exams in math designed to be in line with the recently adopted Common Core Standards.
“And the Common Core world is more rigorous than that of Nevada’s previous standards,” Rabinowitz said.
The million-dollar question: How will the changes and more rigorous exams affect the graduation rate?
FEWER CCSD SENIORS EARN DIPLOMAS
The Clark County School District estimates that 14,500 of its 21,005 seniors, or 69 percent, graduated with diplomas over the past two weeks, a decline of about 500 students from last year when the senior class was larger and about 73 percent of seniors earned diplomas. The district declined to provide the numbers of diplomas awarded school by school .
It’s nice to see all the graduating seniors, “but sadly, many children have not graduated,” State Board of Education President Elaine Wynn said Thursday.
About 6,500 Clark County seniors didn’t graduate this June, according to the district’s estimates. The district’s graduation rate will no doubt sink below 69 percent because the federally mandated formula also factors in dropouts.
Last year, the district’s graduation rate was 61 percent. The state graduation rate was 63 percent because the vast majority of Nevada students are enrolled in the Las Vegas-centered district.
“This data doesn’t make me particularly proud,” Fitzpatrick said of the poor performance that makes Nevada’s graduation rate the third worst in the nation, according to Education Week’s Quality Counts 2013 report released last week.
The proficiency exams are a common roadblock. Currently, less than a third of Nevada students pass the proficiency exams on their first try as sophomores. Some students take the tests as many as four or five times, going so far as to take semester-long courses geared toward passing the exam.
But the “outdated” exams are part of the problem, Fitzpatrick said.
The exams are supposed to show that students are college or career ready. However, one of three Nevada high school graduates, having passed the exams, still aren’t ready for college. The state can tell this because 33 percent of its graduates who stay in state must take remedial, non-college-credit courses as college freshmen.
Replacing the existing proficiency exams with more rigorous Common Core exams is a must, but students need the instruction to match, Clark County School District Associate Superintendent Joyce Haldeman said.
“These end-of-course exams won’t be a walk in the park,” Haldeman said. “We may see yet another decrease in the graduation rate.”
In the meantime, Wright is stuck with a certificate he now realizes is little more than a piece of paper.
He was planning to get a summer job and save a little money for college. Instead, he’s heading back to school for an intensive course to prepare for one last shot at the writing exam in July.
“Fun, right?” he said in a sunken voice, wishing someone — a counselor, a teacher — had spelled out his options sooner.
He needs a score of 7 out of 12, and has been just a half-point shy.
If he passes, Wright will earn his diploma and attend Dixie.
He doesn’t want to think about that. He would be hard pressed to earn a GED diploma by August to attend college in time to keep his scholarship.
“If I knew all this, I would’ve gotten a GED to begin with.”
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.