Test time

Thousands of Clark County high school seniors are failing their proficiency exams this spring, and School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards blames the problem on supposedly "severe budget cuts" triggered by the recession.

That's nonsense.

But, first, consider that the failure rates among seniors taking the tests in May in order to graduate this summer can be highly misleading.

High school kids get their first chance to take the proficiency tests -- passage is required to receive a full-fledged high school diploma, instead of a mere certificate of attendance -- as sophomores, and about half of all sophomores pass the math and science proficiency tests on their first try.

The May tests are given to "kids who, in theory, have failed the test seven times," explains Henry King, the Nevada Department of Education's program manager for criterion-referenced tests.

About 11 percent of Clark County's class of 2010 are actually at risk of settling for a certificate of attendance. And 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 explains, while English language learners accounted for 12.4 percent of last year's seniors who did not pass the math test.

Cutting through the politically correct code talk, some of those failing the tests don't speak enough English to read the instructions, and an actual majority may have learning or behavioral disorders. With these populations now taking the test for the sixth or seventh time, "You're going to see a low pass rate," explains Mr. King.

School Board President Terri Janison recently attended 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. She encouraged the kids, but told them, "At some point, you have to do it for yourself."

Ms. Janison believes the district already offers students an "inordinate amount of help."

That's an understatement. Kids who meet even modest attendance requirements should be able to ace these tests. A second try may make sense, in case a test session caught a kid who'd missed a night's sleep or for some reason failed to take the exercise seriously.

But six tries? Seven or eight? Over a two-year period?

Tests test kids, but they also test schools. Special tutoring and drill sessions may make sense for advanced placement, but for basic competency? That comes close to cheating.

As for the notion that "Draconian budget cuts" have hurt, this year's May failure rate in the math test dropped to 69.8 percent from last year's 92.2 percent, and this year's reading failure rate for the repeaters dropped to 57.9 percent from last year's 91.5 percent.

Kids in foreign countries that now compete with us in sundry high-tech fields seem to do better, in fewer years of schooling, and at a much lower per-pupil cost.

That's the final test. And we doubt handing out free movie tickets is going to help the district do better on it.