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New state rule for retroactive diplomas gives former student hope

One point.

That’s what Charley Thomas, 23, says prevented him from getting a high school diploma.

The former Cheyenne High School student passed all of his high school proficiency exams except one — science. He scored a 299, below the required passing score of 300.

He was devastated.

“I always thought that I would go to college and try to further my education, but since that didn’t happen, it was just like, ‘Wow,’” said Thomas, who works as an audio engineer for a local recording studio. “It kind of made me resent college in a way, because I felt like I wasn’t good enough in a way.”

It was not how he imagined spending his 18th birthday, which coincidentally fell on his Class of 2012 graduation ceremony. He walked in the celebration, he said, but only received a certificate of attendance.

Now Thomas is one of nearly 7,000 Clark County School District students petitioning to receive the diploma they were denied years ago, after a shift in graduation requirements prompted a new ruling from the state Department of Education.

Up until 2017, students like Thomas were required to meet a certain score in four high school proficiency exams to graduate. Those were replaced with end-of-course tests.

But this year the Legislature nixed the passing score requirement for those end-of-course exams. Instead, the exams will become a percentage of a student’s final course grade.

Last month the state decided to make the move more equal: Older students like Thomas who failed the older proficiency exams may still receive their diploma if they fulfilled other graduation requirements. In Clark County, that means proving that you earned all the credits needed to graduate (in most recent years, that is 22.5) and that your last school of attendance was within the district.

The district is going as far back as 1982 — when the proficiency exams became a graduation requirement.

The exam pardon comes as the State Board of Education determines new criteria for graduation.

That task means tackling a tough question: Does earning a Nevada high school diploma mean anything?

While the district’s graduation rates have increased, reaching a record-high preliminary rate of 82.7 percent for 2017, data suggest that our students are still not ready for college. Over half of Nevada 2015 high school graduates who entered the Nevada System of Higher Education were placed into remedial courses.

Setting graduation criteria means balancing real standards while not relying too much on the high-stakes testing that discourages students like Thomas from going to college.

That’s just the dilemma that State Board member Felicia Ortiz ponders.

“If the kid did great in class and just couldn’t do well on the test because some kids — and adults too — get major test anxiety, then why are we holding them back from the opportunity of getting a job and going to college?” she said.

The key, she said, is setting a strong bar for students while not making it so high that those who deserve to pass do not.

Thomas said he was ready for college at 18. He argued that his year-end exams felt like enough of a proficiency test, and he already earned all the required 22.5 credits. With this new change, he hopes to fulfill the dream that was crushed five years ago.

“I’m super excited,” said Thomas, who hopes to enroll in Full Sail University’s online program to study audio engineering. “I mean, I pray it can happen.”

Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4630. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter. On Education appears every other Saturday.

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