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April 16, 2014

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Road to graduation runs through science test for Class of 2010

Early predictions were that state’s graduation rate would plummet with new proficiency exam students can take

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Steve Marcus

Leslie Felker, a Silverado High School senior, says she didn’t pass the newly required science proficiency exam, but has another chance in July.

When the word spread a few years ago that beginning with the Class of 2010 Nevada’s students would have to pass a science proficiency test to earn a high school diploma, cynics predicted the graduation rate would plummet in Clark County.

But this year’s seniors appear to have held their own. The district expects the graduation rate to be close to last year’s 68 percent, even with the tougher hurdles.

Statewide, students are doing better on the science proficiency exam than anticipated when the test was introduced three years ago, said Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.

“We saw a decent pass rate when we first tested the kids as sophomores, and it’s carried over into their junior and senior years,” Rheault said. “We put out the word early that the new test was coming, and gave the districts enough lead time to prepare.”

Students who complete the required course work but do not pass all sections of the exam by their senior year receive an attendance certificate instead of a diploma.

A seniors-only round of testing is offered in May, for students who have yet to pass all sections of the exam.

This month, 2,013 Clark County high school seniors who had failed the science exam tried again, and more than half of them still fell short.

Seniors are allowed to take a final crack at the exam — albeit after commencement festivities have come and gone. If they pass the July test, seniors can trade in their certificates for diplomas from their high schools and they will count toward the district’s overall graduation rate.

After that, they can try again at a later date, but will be considered Adult Education students, rather than members of the Class of 2010.

The first-time pass rate for sophomores who took the science proficiency exam in 2009 was 58 percent. Data for this year’s sophomores, who took a more rigorous version of the test than last year’s class, are not yet available.

Although “58 percent isn’t anything to be proud of,” it is better than what had been predicted, said Brenda Larsen-Mitchell, the district’s executive director of curriculum. And the district intends to follow an aggressive blueprint to boost the first-time pass rate, similar to the approach used to improve test scores on the math section of the exam, Larsen-Mitchell said.

One change was to ramp up the science curriculum. About 75 percent of high school freshmen are enrolled in the “principles of science” class, which covers about 70 percent of the new exam’s content. And this year the district added a review class specifically for seniors who have not passed the science proficiency exam.

The district also added more professional development for elementary, middle and high school science teachers, focusing on lab activities, curriculum and preparing students for the proficiency tests. The graduation requirements were increased to include a third year of science (along with a fourth year of mathematics).

In 2007, the district increased instructional time for science classes at the middle school level. To make room during the academic day for seventh-graders, the district allowed middle schools to reduce — and in some cases, eliminate — a required physical education class.

To Silverado High School Principal Kim Grytdahl, that’s an unfortunate trade-off.

Given the epidemic of childhood obesity, and that many teens don’t get enough exercise, he thinks students would be better off if physical activity were a daily requirement. But he also knows the additional science instruction is helping to prepare students for the academic challenges of high school.

“The reality is the school day just isn’t long enough,” Grytdahl said. “If we’re going to raise the expectations for students, we need more time.”

But time is expensive. For schools to add another class period to the academic day would costs hundreds of millions of dollars that the state doesn’t have, Rheault said.

“I was unhappy that schools had to give up PE to make room for science, although I certainly understand why they did it,” Rheault said. “But I also believe that physical activity during the day can help students work off some of their restless energy, and they’ll actually do better in all their classes.”

Rod Miller, in his 15th year teaching in the district, says the science proficiency review class at Silverado High School offered him a new challenge: reviewing years of material in one semester. Miller found that many of his students struggled with the earth sciences, in part because those were topics they hadn’t revisited since middle school.

Since the science proficiency exam was added, Miller said he has reshaped some of his instructional methods, spending more time with straightforward lectures and question-and-answer sessions. The students seem to retain more material with that approach, Miller said.

For Justin Tate, a Silverado senior in Miller’s class, not being able to pass the science proficiency exam went beyond frustration.

As a result of the setbacks, “I lost some of my confidence,” said Tate, who recently passed the science section and is hoping for a career in law enforcement. “I thought I was good student, but it seemed like all this work I was doing in class didn’t matter. I kind of felt like a failure.”

Leslie Felker, also a Silverado senior in Miller’s class, will have to take another shot at the science proficiency exam in July after falling short of the mark in May. She believes the exam should be required, even though she’s “a little upset” that she hasn’t yet passed.

“You have to know all your subjects, not just the ones you like,” said Felker, who plans to attend Nevada State College and become a teacher. “I’m glad I get another chance to try again.”

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