Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The exams were intended to test student achievement in math. After a disastrous performance last school year by middle and high school students, the “common semester assessments” have become a test in damage control for Clark County School District administrators.
Educators haven’t yet determined why 86 percent to 91 percent of students failed the exams in algebra and geometry. Still, the district has decided to move forward this school year with revised versions of the tests.
The exams have transformed from a diagnostic tool into a political boondoggle, used by the district’s critics as proof that K-12 education is falling short. Proving otherwise has become a priority for the district’s central office.
Yet some principals said the tests — revised or not — will serve only to paint their students and teachers as failures. They are already under enough pressure to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law and have students pass the statewide proficiency exams required for graduation, the principals said.
“This was created ... as an assessment, and somehow it has become a high-stakes test,” said David Bechtel, principal of Basic High School.
Previously, teachers used their own exams to determine a student’s grade in algebra and geometry. But the district wanted a uniform measure of how well students were learning the material and whether they would be ready for a tougher statewide proficiency exam in 2010.
Although a few bumps were expected the first time the uniform tests were given, the dismal results last school year took everyone by surprise. Ninety-one percent of Algebra 1 students and 86 percent of Algebra 2 students failed. Eighty-eight percent of geometry students failed.
The theories about why the scores were so poor are plentiful. Some teachers focused less on the curriculum and more on helping students catch up on basic math to improve their chances of passing the proficiency exam. Some schools treated the tests as an optional assessment, and didn’t use practice questions to familiarize students with the content. Some teachers opted to stick with their own tests and not give the district exams.
District officials assembled a committee of experts to make sure this year’s tests more closely reflect course material and teachers receive help preparing students for the exams. The committee includes teachers, principals, administrators and two outside consultants — UNLV professor William Speer and Tim Kanold, president of the National Council for Supervisors of Mathematics.
But not everyone is convinced. At a recent meeting of the district’s high school principals, some said they would prefer not to use the new tests. Others wondered why the district needed yet another measure of student performance.
The principals are also debating how much the test should count toward a student’s grade, and whether it should be standard districtwide.
Some principals told the Sun they were considering counting the test for as little as 1 percent to 5 percent, while others were planning on 20 percent. (District regulation allows a final exam to count for no more than 20 percent of a student’s grade.)
Some principals worry that if the percentage is too high, and problems persist with the next batch of tests, many students will fail a class they otherwise would pass.
Canyon Springs High School Principal Milana Winter said because student performance will be compared among campuses, it’s only fair that the test have the same weight from school to school.
“If my kids don’t do as well on the exam because they don’t have the same skills coming in, so be it,” Winter said. “But the class grade shouldn’t be inflated with homework and extra credit.”
At the same time, “one test shouldn’t decide a student’s entire grade for the semester,” said Winter, who is in her first year at the helm of Canyon Springs.
During the meeting, a straw poll came down “overwhelmingly in favor of not having a common percentage,” said Silverado High School Principal Kim Grytdahl.
Bonanza High School Principal Bart Mangino, who also serves on the expert committee, said he believes students will fare better when the revised exams are given, in January.
Bechtel, the principal at Basic High School, isn’t as confident.
“I’m not convinced on the validity of the test,” he said.
Bechtel said he was also frustrated with media coverage of the test results and the public’s response. Classroom teachers, Superintendent Walt Rulffes and others have expressed similar sentiments.
“I’m speaking to a reporter about what’s supposed to be a semester exam,” Bechtel said.
Canyon Springs High School math teacher Tanya Kyles said blame has been heaped on the teachers, although there were serious problems with how the tests were administered.
For example, Canyon Springs didn’t test its honors students, which means the schoolwide scores didn’t get a boost from its best students. Students were asked questions about material that wasn’t supposed to have been covered in their class, Kyles said.
“Those are all things we have to talk about before we start talking about where the kids and where the teachers are going wrong,” she said.
Speer said the “shell shock” from the test results is understandable, but the district has managed to turn the situation into a learning opportunity.
“There’s a certain urgency, but not a panic,” Speer said. “There are reasonable goals being set. This isn’t something you can fix overnight, but I truly believe there will be improvement.”