High school advancement change OK’d to boost graduation rates

The Nevada Board of Education has tweaked the academic regulations to give students more opportunities to pass the tests required for high school graduation.

“If they haven’t passed (the proficiency exams) by senior year, they need every chance they can get,” said Keith Rheault, state superintendent of K-12 education.

The board on Friday modified the terms of eligibility so students can take the exit exams as sophomores, juniors or seniors even if they have not earned all of the academic credits required for their grade level.

High school seniors are given as many as four chances to pass the proficiency tests, including one opportunity over the summer after their class’s commencement ceremony.

In the past, Nevada has defined a senior as a student who has earned at least 17 credits. So fourth-year students lacking in credits would miss opportunities to take the state proficiency tests until they caught up academically.

“This was an unintended consequence” of the credit-based system, Rheault said. “I didn’t think it was fair that just because of the timing, a student might be a half credit short (and could not take a test).”

The state-required proficiency exams in English, math and science are first offered to students as sophomores, who get one shot at the tests. They get two more opportunities as juniors and as many as four chances as seniors.

In the regulation change approved Friday, the state board now defines a sophomore as a student who has completed at least five credits or two semesters of high school.

A junior is a student who has completed 11 credits or four semesters of high school. A senior is a student who has earned 17 credits or six semesters of high school.

Rheault said the regulation change was not a reversion to social promotion because students must still pass all the classes and tests required for graduation.

He said the change was “about flexibility” so a student would “not be stopped by the artificial grade level.”

Rheault said the “only downside” or “abuse” would be if the local school districts allowed unprepared students to take the proficiency tests.

“But I think most districts realize that,” he said. “They will manage that on their own.”

Rheault said the demand for the change came from the state’s 17 school districts. It will be up to the local school boards to adopt the new regulation as local policy.

Walt Rulffes, the superintendent of the Clark County School District, said the regulation will first be evaluated by district staff before it is presented to the Clark County School Board. He declined to discuss the new regulation’s possible ups or downs.

During a workshop of the Clark County School Board on Wednesday, Lauren Kohut-Rost, the deputy superintendent for instruction, alluded to the “shift” in state regulations.

She said what was old has become new again since grade level advancement was originally based on completing semesters.

“They have now gone back,” Rost said. “You can do it … by credit or semesters.”

Rheault said he could not estimate how the changes would impact the state’s graduation rate, which is the worst in the nation according to one study.

Education Week’s annual survey called “Diploma Counts” puts the state’s graduation rate at 47.3 percent and Clark County’s graduation rate at 46.8 percent.

In figuring its graduation rates, Diplomas Count calculates the likelihood of graduation rather than the percentage of students who will graduate in four years. It multiplies the percentages of high school students who advance each year to the next grade level and graduation to come up with an overall percentage of how many students probably would graduate in four years.

State and local educators are critical of Education Week’s methodology because they said it does not account for the state’s high transiency rate.

State officials calculate their graduation rate at 67 percent and 63 percent for Clark County for 2005-06, the same year used by Education Week’s most recent study.

Nevada calculates its graduation rate by taking the total number of diplomas for a year, dividing that number by the total number of estimated dropouts from the senior class’s last four years plus the number of seniors who completed course work but did not graduate.

The result is multiplied by 100 to get a percentage. Under this formula, if a state undercounts its dropouts, its percentage of graduates improves.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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