High School exams must go

Two sessions ago, the Legislature replaced the high school proficiency exams with end-of-course exams to be developed by the state Board of Education. The board got a late start on this process, which resulted in two classes of students not having to pass exams to graduate.

At their latest meeting in March, board members could not agree on a passing score for these exams. As a result, students who took algebra or geometry last year will be given an automatic pass on these exams no matter what they score. This could mean a third class will be exempted from passing these exams to graduate high school.

I say good.

Only 12 or 13 states require students to pass exit exams to graduate. The Nevada requirement needlessly places the graduation of our students in jeopardy.

Now, I can hear the “accountability” folks — the folks who demand “high standards” — bellyaching. That’s OK with me as long as they will sit down and take these exams and have their scores published. It’s tiresome to listen to people support testing when they have no idea what material is being tested and how it will be tested.

I think one of the reasons behind the state board’s inaction was the discrepancy in scores between middle-school students taking algebra and their counterparts in high school. Another reason was that so few students would have passed the tests if the cut score was based on a percentage of problems answered correctly. How does the board justify 70 percent to 80 percent of students failing — not graduating high school — because of these tests?

I will put aside the fact that students are not guaranteed experienced, qualified teachers and that class sizes are too large. I will ignore the state’s lack of investment in professional development and stick with the realities in the classroom. While I don’t have the results, I would guess that approximately 80 percent of the middle school students taking the end-of-year algebra test passed, while 80 percent of the high school students failed.

The reason for this disparity has fallen on deaf ears since the Common Core standards were rolled out. Students taking algebra in middle school are typically more academically inclined, have a better background in math and are motivated by the fact they have already decided to go to college. They have parental support and backing. In addition, middle schools are very selective about who gets to take algebra and their classes are typically much smaller than high school algebra classes.

Now, contrast that to high school algebra.

Students in high school are forced to take algebra so a class spans from special-needs students who may not have the ability to succeed, to students who would rather be involved in vocational programs, to students who might want to consider going to college. Too many do not come into the classes with the knowledge and skills required of students enrolled in a college prep program. They are not motivated to learn algebra and often question why they must give up taking vocational classes to learn how to derive the formula of a parabola.

These factors all lead to classroom management issues.

Given these disparate results, you can see why teachers are concerned about using exams as part of their evaluation. Add to that the fact that teachers are not allowed to fail students without coming under a lot of scrutiny. So students can pass with minimum or no effort. That helps explain why the grades students earn in classes do not match exam grades.

An exit exam should be designed to measure something beyond how many correct answers a student achieves. That’s what the old proficiency exam did. It sure wasn’t a college entrance exam or a minimum competency exam — it was a bad joke. These end-of-course exams fall under the same category. And who will pay for the remediation needed to get students to pass them?

It’s time to get rid of these as graduation exams. Students would be much better served if we didn’t adopt one-size-fits-all models. Allow more vocational opportunities and place students in classes that are appropriate to their academic level while providing for those who hope to go on to college.

Bill Hanlon is the retired director of the Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program. He was coordinator of the Clark County School District’s Math/Science Institute and served as vice president of the Nevada State Board of Education.

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