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July 23, 2014

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Pass rate falls for students taking key test as seniors

But there’s good news: More show mastery before final year

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Sam Morris

Canyon Springs High School teacher Tanya Kyles works in September with seniors who still need to pass the statewide math proficiency test, a requirement for graduation. A federal grant will soon allow schools to offer more help.

At a glance, the report looks like more bad news for the Clark County School District — the percentage of seniors who passed the all-important math proficiency exam in November fell to 22 percent from 30.6 percent a year ago.

But the drop in the pass rate actually suggests an uptick in student achievement. The percentage of the district’s class of 2009 who passed the math proficiency test on earlier attempts — as sophomores or juniors — increased by 11.27 percentage points over last year’s senior class.

That translated into nearly 900 fewer seniors who needed to pass the exam when it was given last month, said Sue Daellenbach, the School District’s academic manager.

The decline in the November senior pass rate was even steeper on the reading and writing section of the exam, falling to 46.5 percent from 56.1 percent. Last month 1,384 seniors took the reading and writing test, compared with 1,840 in November 2007.

Nevada requires students to pass the High School Proficiency Exam to graduate. Students who complete the required coursework but do not pass all sections of the exam receive a certificate of attendance instead of a diploma. Students make their first attempt at the proficiency exam as sophomores, and have opportunities to try again in their junior and senior years.

The decline in the pass rate for this year’s Clark County seniors is steep enough to warrant a closer look, said Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction. State education officials routinely monitor proficiency test results for all 17 of Nevada’s school districts. But Clark County, which accounts for 70 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment, receives particular scrutiny.

The explanation that more students passed the test as sophomores and juniors, thus reducing the pool of November test-takers, makes sense, Rheault said. But declines of 8.5 percentage points on math and nearly 10 percentage points in reading and writing are still worrisome.

There’s another factor that likely contributed to the decline, Daellenbach said. The ongoing budget crisis has eliminated funding for proficiency test tutorial programs. The last district-sponsored session took place nearly a year ago.

“These are students who are really struggling,” Daellenbach said. “They need special attention.”

Although some schools cobbled together alternatives, Daellenbach said “there’s always an impact (on student performance) when you cut those one-on-one small group sessions.”

There’s little doubt the state’s fiscal crisis, and the resulting shortfall in education funding, will ultimately hurt student performance, Rheault said. The Clark County School District has lost $133 million in state support, and has been told to prepare another $120 million in cuts over the next biennium.

“The prospect for the next two years,” Rheault said, “is nothing but sliding back even further.”

In a district survey last year of recent high school dropouts, the most common reason given for quitting school was being unable to pass the proficiency exam. Clark County’s graduation rate hovers around 60 percent, and is one of the nation’s lowest.

The district won a $100,000 federal grant to support proficiency test preparation in the new year, said Jhone Ebert, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. The first sessions will start Monday, when students return to school after the winter break, and will continue through spring.

Several years ago the district began offering a separate math class for seniors who needed to pass the test, and the final pass rate improved as a result.

About 40 percent of the statewide math proficiency test is based on fundamental math skills that students are supposed to have acquired by eighth grade. The U.S. Education Department has told Nevada it must revise the exam so that only high-school-level material is included. The test is being revised, and the tougher version will debut in 2010.

Emily Richmond can be reached at 259-8829 or at [email protected]

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