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COMMENTARY: Accepting — and getting — less from our students

The roots of national problems can be seen right here in the Clark County School District.

In order to maintain a strong economy and military superiority, our nation must understand the great importance that math, science, engineering and technology plays in American dominance.

Our school district — indeed, our nation’s schools — are not producing enough students in STEM education. It’s way past time to grow our own well-educated population to serve the needs of our country. Mathematics is the tap root without which students cannot succeed in science, engineering or technology. Yet the Clark County school superintendent is advocating a further watering down of the curriculum with a new testing policy that would allow repeated “do-overs.” The district trustees have to wake up and decide to either expect more of our students to get more or accept less and get less.

My sense is people think testing is only about earning a grade. That’s not true. Testing and preparing for tests cause students to pause, think, reflect, review material, identify and address deficiencies and to place their new learning in context of past learning to see how material is linked to determine how much they know, understand and can apply. Keeping up is key to student success — timely mastery.

The most recent debate on grading and mastery flies in the face of research and common sense. These fields are tied together. Not only are those fields tied together, the contents within the subjects, such as math, are also very closely linked.

In short, if students don’t know polynomial operations in algebra, they can’t solve quadratic equations in the next chapter. Before moving on, especially in math, students need to master the material in the previous chapter. When that does not happen, students struggle needlessly and, as a result, don’t continue their study of math, which leads to struggles in science, engineering or technology. Teachers cannot cover the material required in a particular course without having pacing that allows them to cover the all the topics in a timely manner — the teachers can’t stop teaching what is expected in a course.

Clearly, the idea of taking tests over and over and over again flies in the face of timely mastery, resulting in teachers not having the opportunity to teach all the topics required in the course. That should be a grave concern as students move into the next course without the knowledge needed to be successful. Adding to that, the burden on teachers — creating, running off, setting separate test administration times, grading and recoding multiple tests — borders on lunacy. Whose footing the bill when students choose not to do their work?

I had the opportunity to see this policy in action in another state. Two days before the end of a semester, hundreds of students realized there may be consequences from their parents for the poor grades they earned. What did students do? They demanded teachers create new retake tests not just one test, but multiple tests in the same course and accept hundreds of late assignments, etc. so they could get a higher grade. What a cluster! Apparently, students realized that parental consequences work and wanted to get busy and increase their grades.

Rather than the continuation of watering down curriculums with these “No F” policies — giving students a grade of at least 50 percent even if they won’t put their name on the paper — no homework and now allowing students to retake tests endlessly, we should expect more and hold students accountable.

In order to succeed in the math, science, engineering and technology, timely mastery matters. Our nation needs homegrown students being successful in math so they can enter fields in science, engineering and technology. Teachers can’t go on to the next chapter without students having the perquisite skills and knowledge. Timely mastery is important to success. This test retaking policy being suggested by the superintendent will not serve our students well. Nor will it serve our nation.

Bill Hanlon, who has served on the Nevada Board of Education, is president of Mathematical Systems Inc. and former coordinator of the Clark County School District’s Math/Science Institute.

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