Don't weaken proficiency exam standards

Nevada doesn't value education. That's been the battle cry of the public school establishment and its defenders throughout the legislative session.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval doesn't value education, otherwise he wouldn't propose budget cuts and oppose tax increases. Parents and businesses don't value education, otherwise they'd be more involved in pushing students to make the grade and gain the skills needed to enter college and the labor force.

But the people who claim to properly appreciate education have a warped way of showing it. The Clark County School District administration, with the support of lawmakers from both parties, has decided the best way to value education is to devalue a high school diploma.

Assembly Bill 456 would allow some students to collect their diploma even if they fail one part of the four-section Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. To qualify for this exemption, students must pass all their required courses with at least a 2.75 grade-point average, receive no discipline for attendance or behavior problems and pass three sections of the proficiency test by a margin that makes up for the point shortage on the fourth.

"Isn't it better to have these avenues for graduation," asked Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards, "rather than have dropouts?"

No, it isn't. It's far preferable to have consistent, reasonable standards for a high school diploma. These standards give the diploma its value. They tell colleges and employers that a Nevada high school graduate can read and write English proficiently, has mastered important math skills and has an acceptable understanding of science.

If Assembly Bill 456 becomes law, every college admissions officer and company will be left to wonder, "Is this applicant proficient in core subjects, or does this person have an academic weakness? And if they do, which skill is it?"

This bill is an affront to the majority of students who pass the High School Proficiency Exam every year without trouble. Their accomplishments will be diminished and tarred with suspicion. If the tests were not representative of the coursework taught -- if they were truly too hard -- then nearly everyone would bomb.

Indeed, Joyce Haldeman, Clark County's associate superintendent, estimates that the bill would benefit only 100 students a year, fewer than three students per high school. We're throwing principle out the window for this tiny minority?

And what does it say about the Clark County School District if a student can pass every class with nearly a B average and still not clear the proficiency exam -- after at least six tries at the test? For starters, it's proof of grade inflation and the failures of social promotion, among other ills.

Assembly Bill 456 has already passed the Assembly. It cleared the Senate Education Committee on Friday. If the bill makes it Gov. Sandoval's desk, he must veto it.

To show we value education, we must reform schools and shake up the status quo, not lower our expectations. We must improve standards and accountability, not water them down.