The number of Clark County School District seniors desperate to pass the state's proficiency exams before commencement rose dramatically this year, with 2,960 members of the class of 2010 taking the May administration of the math exam alone.
That's a 59 percent increase over the 1,860 district seniors who had to take the May exam last year.
Failure on the state's proficiency exams in math, reading and science means that seniors who might have earned all of the required credits will be handed certificates of attendance at graduation instead of diplomas. With 2,065 seniors failing to pass the state-mandated math exam given this month, at least 11 percent of the district's class of 2010 might face that situation.
Clark County School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards said there are more students "continuing to try to pass (the proficiency exams). So that's good. The other side is that we have more not passing. That's not good."
Edwards thinks the effect of severe budget cuts triggered by the economy this school year took its toll on student achievement.
"We cut programs," she said, noting that reductions were made in tutoring programs and school discretionary spending. "We are struggling to offer the kind of support these students need to be successful."
Nearly 70 percent of the May test-takers failed their math and science exams, and 58 percent failed their reading test.
The total number of diplomas and certificates of attendance that will be handed out at graduation ceremonies that begin next week was not available from the district Wednesday.
Seniors will have another opportunity to pass the tests in July and be officially counted in the class of 2010.
Henry King, the Nevada Department of Education's program manager for criterion-referenced tests, said the public should not be surprised by the high failure rates on the May exams.
"The May exam is given to seniors ready to graduate only," King said. "These are kids who in theory have failed the test seven times. You're going to see a low pass rate."
King also offered this perspective: About half of all sophomores passed the math and science tests on their first try.
"We spend a lot of time focused on this May population that is still struggling, (but) give credit to the sophomores who passed it," King said.
District officials said they will not know until next week how many students earned sufficient course credit to graduate. The district's 2009 graduation rate was 68 percent.
Though enrollment is down by 3,000 students for the district as a whole, this year's senior class is about 8 percent larger than last year's: 18,147 seniors this year compared with 16,767 seniors in 2009.
School Board President Terri Janison thinks the district offers students an "inordinate amount of help."
She went to a pep talk for May test-takers who were given incentives such as free movie tickets and restaurant coupons to encourage them to do well on the test.
Janison said she urged students to think of their future.
"At some point, you have to do it for yourself," Janison said.
All students need to pass the proficiency exams to earn regular diplomas, including special-education students and English language learners.
Last year, 52 percent of the 1,571 credit-sufficient seniors who did not pass the math proficiency test in Clark County were students with special needs, a district official said. English language learners accounted for 12.4 percent of last year's seniors who did not pass the math test.
The math exam was revised this year, but only sophomores were given the new version of the test because the state likes to stagger changes in testing, King said.
This year's seniors are the first group required to pass the science proficiency test to graduate. Testing for science began two years ago when this year's seniors were sophomores.
Because the testing schedule was changed this year, seniors had one less opportunity to take the tests, district spokesman Michael Rodriguez said. He said that gave students more time to prepare for the May test.
Contact reporter James Haug at email@example.com or 702-374-7917.