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July 28, 2014

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The turnaround:

As graduation day nears, burden of passing proficiency exams weighs heavily on seniors

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Leila Navidi

Senior Laneisha Hopson reacts to the good news that she passed her Nevada High School Proficiency Exams with her guidance counselor Abby Jones, left, at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, April 18, 2012.

Proficiency Exam Results at Chaparral High

Senior Isai Chavarria reacts to the news that he passed the science and writing Nevada High School Proficiency Exams at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Launch slideshow »

What is a turnaround school?

The Clark County School District implemented the "turnaround" model at five of its worst-performing schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Four of these schools — Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools, and Hancock Elementary School — received a piece of a three-year, $8.7 million federal School Improvement Grant to improve test scores and for the high schools, graduation rates. As part of the turnaround model, the principal and at least half of the staff were replaced at each school, and schools were required to implement new programs and teaching methods to improve student achievement.

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking efforts by the Clark County School District to improve student performance at five struggling schools.

A few months ago, Laneisha Hopson learned she was just one point away from graduating in June.

The 17-year-old Chaparral senior scored a 299 on the science portion of Nevada’s high school proficiency exam when she took the test this past fall. The passing score – and Hopson’s ticket to graduation – is 300.

So it was no surprise Hopson was nervous Wednesday morning as she sat in a small conference room decorated with college pennants. She was awaiting her scores from science proficiency exam she took in March.

“Nervous?” guidance counselor Abby Jones asks, as she pores through the stack of papers containing the answer to Hopson’s burning question: Will I get to graduate?

Hopson nods, squeezing her hands together.

“You got a 303,” Jones says. “It’s passing. You passed.”

Hopson buries her head in her arms. When she comes back up a second later, she flashes a big smile.

“I’m so happy,” Hopson says. “I’m so proud. This just made my day!”

“You should be,” Jones says, beaming. “All this work you put in. I’m so happy for you. You’re graduating!”

•••

As the results from the March assessment of the state proficiency results came in last week, nerve-wracking meetings such as Hopson’s played out in classrooms and guidance offices across the valley.

High school seniors – who hadn’t passed the exam yet – were those most eager to find out their scores. After all, they can’t graduate if they don’t pass.

Nevada high school students are given six chances to pass the proficiency exam. The test is first administered in the fall of the sophomore year, twice during the junior year and three times during senior year. The standardized exam tests students on mostly ninth-grade material in reading, writing, math and science. Once a passing score is achieved in each of the four areas, a student no longer must take the exams. But by law, all students must pass the proficiencies to graduate from a Nevada high school.

At a “turnaround” high school like Chaparral, results of these high-stakes tests weigh especially heavily on school administrators, teachers and students.

After all, federal funding and teacher jobs are on the line if the school doesn’t meet its testing benchmarks. But ultimately, it’s the students who suffer the most from the consequences of the Clark County School District’s failure to educate them.

This year, Chaparral began receiving more than $1 million as part of a three-year, federal School Improvement Grant in an ambitious effort to turn around the school. The once high-performing school had grown anemic over the years. In 2011, just a third of its senior class graduated.

Chaparral’s principal and more than half of its staff were replaced, and the struggling high school redoubled its efforts to help its students. Under the new principal, Dave Wilson, a renewed focus on discipline, order and academics has been restored.

Wilson threw everything he could think of at his students: a barrage of test-prep teachers, after-school tutoring and Saturday school to help his students pass the exam. As a result, Chaparral is on track to meet all of its federally-mandated testing benchmarks by the end of the year, Wilson said.

Despite the improvements, about 196 Chaparral seniors need to pass one or more proficiencies in May. That’s out of 465 students in the senior class, but down from more than 300 students who needed to pass before the March exam.

After the March testing, there’s only one more shot, one more chance to earn passing scores and graduate. And it’s coming fast. The final test administration for seniors occurs in the first week of May.

“Imagine being here for four years, doing the work, passing the classes and coming down to passing a proficiency exam and missing it by a few points,” Wilson says. “That’s the thing that’s going to hold you up? It’s scary.”’

•••

At a “turnaround” school like Chaparral, happy stories like Hopson’s – characterized by broad smiles, celebratory hugs and fist pumps in the air – are hard to come by as graduation day approaches.

That’s because while most at-risk seniors improved their scores after taking each test – inching toward graduation – only a few actually made it across the bar.

“I hate this time of year,” says Rowena Manibusan, an eight-year veteran guidance counselor. “It’s good to tell the ones who’ve passed, but very few have passed this time around.

“It’s just awful,” she continues. “I’ve had kids cry, kids who you never thought would cry. You just try to give them hope.”

And that’s the conundrum. At this point, it’s difficult to encourage seniors who already have failed the exams five times to persevere.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” guidance counselor Jones says. “It’s crunch time. It’s really stressful, but the fourth quarter is all about kicking-it-in-gear time.”

After meeting with Hopson, Jones had to deliver some bad news to Diana Guillen. The 17-year-old senior fell just 11 points short of passing the science exam.

“I thought I passed because I took my time,” a visibly discouraged Guillen tells Jones. “I was one of the last ones done.”

“You have to take it slow, go back, double-check,” Jones says, encouraging Guillen to take practice tests online and come to Saturday school. “You’re very, very close. You can do it. You just need that last bit of cramming.”

Guillen is determined to pass her last proficiency in May, but she says she is frustrated. She’s also scared she won’t graduate.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “There are so many tests you’ve got to worry about. It’s stressing. I don’t get (the point), but I don’t have a choice.”

Principal Wilson understands Guillen’s frustrations. Wilson is a proponent of changing the proficiency exams to the ACT exam, a nationally recognized college entrance examination being considered by the state as an alternative high school exit exam.

The current proficiency exams are only used to determine whether if a student can graduate, Wilson says. Results cannot be used by college admissions or even high schools for placement in classes.

“What are they trying to demonstrate (with this exam)?” Wilson says. “There’s no other significance besides checking the box for graduation. That’s a huge weakness.”

•••

Oracio Carlin clasps his hands. A gold cross dangles across his white T-shirt.

Guidance counselor Manibusan shuffles through the papers.

“Science, 254,” she tells Carlin. “You need 300 to pass. Almost there.”

Carlin bites his lip as he casts his eyes downward.

“Math, 100,” Manibusan says after a pause. “You need 242.”

Carlin lets out a sigh. He struggles not to tear up.

Manibusan asks Carlin if he’s thought about attending Saturday school. Carlin says he hadn’t. He works most nights and weekends as a cashier and cook at a nearby Carl’s Jr. to help support his family of six.

But flipping burgers and counting change is not what Carlin wants for his future, he tells Manibusan. He wants to attend College of Southern Nevada and become an automotive technician.

“I’m afraid, but I’m not going to give up,” Carlin says, fighting back tears. “I’m going to keep on trying.”

If he doesn’t pass in May, Carlin could come back as a fifth-year senior to finish his exams, Manibusan tells him. Or he still can attend the graduation ceremony and receive a certificate of attendance, Manibusan says.

But Carlin says that’s not an option for him.

“To me, walking that stage and getting that certificate of attendance is no good,” he says, dejectedly. “It’s fake.”

“That’s not the way to look at it,” Manibusan, says, as she tries to console him. “Some people have a hard time on tests. You worked hard and passed your classes. You can’t let test scores define you.”

“But I don’t want 12 years of school going down the drain,” Carlin says. “I want to get a high school diploma.”

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  1. Man, they are unable to pass a 9th grade level test? So what did they do the next 3 years? Something wrong here...

  2. Not all students do well with a testing format. We now have students from first grade up taking their annual tests on a computer. There are many ways a student can show proficiency in a subject area. Why go to school for thirteen years, why not just stay home and study for the test?
    The school district should require every parent and person who supports this method of assessment to take the tests including the staff at the Sun!

  3. WHOA! I'm just skimming, and the first thing I see is, "But ultimately, it's the students who suffer the most from the consequences of the Clark County School District's failure to educate them."

    The DISTRICT'S failure to educate them? LIKE THEY HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THEIR OWN FAILURE?

    In the real world, Paul, kids actually have to do work to succeed in school. Many of them don't get that.

    Kids need to be taught that you can't spend 15 years goofing off, then all of a sudden make up for what you didn't learn.

    STOP SOCIAL PROMOTION. STOP SOCIAL PROMOTION. STOP SOCIAL PROMOTION.

    Perhaps you ought to talk to this girl's past teachers - who I guarantee taught what they were supposed to teach - and see how many missing assignments she had, how often she was absent, etc.

    STOP BLAMING TEACHERS! If you're 17 and can't pass the tests, then either you have a learning disability and should have an IEP, you are a recent immigrant whose English is poor, you have family problems that have kept you out of school or bouncing around, you do not have the aptitude for these tests (which are neither very easy nor very hard), or YOU HAVEN'T BEEN DOING YOUR PART over the years.

    GET RID OF THIS REPORTER IF HE IS THIS BIASED, PLEASE. People have been harping on "bad teachers". How about bad reporters? They can do a world of damage to a community. How about bad students who don't do the work? This district is flooded with such students, yet teachers are being blamed!

    Blaming people who are not responsible is NOT going to improve NV education!

    And stop making it sound like someone who can't pass is a victim of the test. We are all victims when people receive diplomas that have no standards attached to them.

  4. Wow, seriously.

    When is this society going to grow up and stop living in a fantasy land where you don't have to work or be responsible, but still reap the rewards?

    I know from experience that most kids who are failing simply don't do the work.

  5. doogie: there is a large disconnect between what's taught in the classroom and what's on the actual test for a variety of reasons.
    1. the tests are not created using nevada state standards because a select few testing companies create the tests for nearly every state in the country.
    2. teachers are not allowed to see the tests (except past versions which are no longer valid) so there is no way to line up curriculum with what is actually being tested.
    3. also because of #2 teachers have to cover an enormous amount of material in a very short time period and it doesn't really matter if students are learning the material or not. there is no time to stop and re-teach, check for understanding, or learn anything in-depth.

    high stakes testing has created a fast food, assembly line style of education. the students need to be moved through as quickly as possible and only at the end do we determine if the product is good or not. and if the product is not good then it is simply cast aside because there are thousands more coming down the line.
    solution? stop testing and focus on creating solid, thoughtful curriculum. there are mountains of data to be gleaned from schools even before testing is included if measurements and comparisons are deemed necessary. if testing is deemed necessary then tests need to be created in-state to reflect actual curriculum or every state's curriculum needs to be lined up to the tests being used.

  6. This is depressing on multiple levels. Dang.

  7. Why don't we just create vocational schools after 10th grade for those that aren't going to college? It's really just a waste of taxpayer money & the students time to make them go through the motions.

    Can anyone that went straight to work out of high school really say that the last 2 years really made a difference in their lives? General reading and math is all these kids want and need. When I was younger and poorer, getting paid to help the family & myself was a top priority over my own education.

  8. Ok, I've worked in the school district for six years and there is some real craziness going on. There are seniors who have three credits and are totally clueless as to how that happened. There are seniors who have straight A's who can't pass one or more of the proficiencies and kids who have passed all of their proficiencies who are flunking all of their classes. There are kids who have passed their proficiencies in other states who then have to take Nevada's and are unable to pass. There are plenty of states that don't require proficiencies and there is homeschooling where you can get around it if you're not trying to get the M scholarship (which by the way can only be used in Nevada and can only be accessed at $2500 a year for four years, not in one lump). It's Nevada's dirty little secred and it's all a bigger mess that one would think and the devil is in the details. Give me that $250K salary and I'll be happy to turn it all around:-)

  9. 6 chances to pass 9th grade level work? Las Vegas is creating one heck of a talent pool. Teachers are not to blame. Parents and students are. My kids knew their "job" was to not only "pass" their classes but to put out extra effort. My wife and I checked homework and talked to teachers. It's like the food chain - more opportunities for my kids while your kids are asking "do you want fries with that"? We will be giving these kids free entitlements for life.

  10. Ok, I've worked in the school district for six years and there is some real craziness going on. There are seniors who have three credits and are totally clueless as to how that happened. There are seniors who have straight A's who can't pass one or more of the proficiencies and kids who have passed all of their proficiencies who are flunking all of their classes. There are kids who have passed their proficiencies in other states who then have to take Nevada's and are unable to pass. There are plenty of states that don't require proficiencies and there is homeschooling where you can get around it if you're not trying to get the M scholarship (which by the way can only be used in Nevada and can only be accessed at $2500 a year for four years, not in one lump). It's Nevada's dirty little secret and it's all a bigger mess that one would think and the devil is in the details. Give me that $250K salary and I'll be happy to turn it all around:-)

  11. I have to agree with Mr. Wilson, the principal, that , generally, proficiency exams as promulgated and delivered in Nevada are a waste of resources.Going to a standard diploma and an advanced diploma with ACT would be an improvement over the current certificate of attendance. Although I've only had the past four years of HS teaching experience before I retired I did note that a whole lot of seniors hoping to graduate who failed their proficiency exams also had four years worth of poor attitude, poor grades, poor attendance, etc. The exam is not that difficult if you have studied and paid attention, done your required work. Except for the writing exam you take them as sophomores which means that if you fail the first time you can have up to two years of study to review the material. There are kids who lack the intellectual capacity to pass and, yes, there are a few kids who simply don't test well but do quite well with project-based or other demonstrative learning styles. The vast majority of failing students, though, simply do not have , or did not have when it counted, the work ethic to succeed. And that lack of work ethic came from their parents.

  12. My son, who was a totally unmotivated student and graduated with a pathetic GPA, passed that test easily in 9th grade. So did I. It's a very easy test and if kids aren't able to pass, they either have test-taking anxiety, or they are inadequately educated.

  13. Sorry,oops in the earlier post, my son took it in the tenth grade. I took it back in the eighties. I like the idea of moving to the ACT instead of the NV proficiency exam. That adds some value for the student. I had to pay a hundred dollars for my son to take the SAT exams.

  14. What they should do, is make the test...very difficult but at the same time, its an open note, open book test. You can bring in any material from classes you took (ie math, english, science, history etc).
    The way the test is currently is set up...is testing memory. It is not teaching any critical thinking skills. I would rather not know the answer from memory, but know how to find the correct answer from research. One isn't going to know and remember everything. But you should it least be able to know where to look, ask and find the correct answer.
    Some of my toughest exams in college were open note and open book.

  15. I thought is was my understanding you can take the test your freshman year, if that is so, I would be taking the test then. I agree with the testing but I believe schools are no preparing students to pass the test, but are actually making them fail. Test of these nature are usually based on the basics, when students take college level courses, they tend to lose the basic knowledge of arithmetic, writing and science. The district should not teach every student the same, not everyone is going to college. I think student who have taking exam should take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, this will determine their weakest, get students to taking a exam and seeing if they will even qualify for military service, there is no obligation to service.

  16. Native Nev.......agree wholeheartedly!!!!!In my Auto technology classes all exams were collaberative [sp?] and open resource...that is, any resource contained within the classroom could be used by a team of 2 to 4 students to formulate answers.

  17. @Teacher - my sentiments exactly.... just the fact that someone is 'glad' they passed by a lousy 3 points shows that they only thing of concern to that student and her parents was simply that she get a diploma even if by the skin of her teeth. The reaction certainly doesn't show that the family puts any REAL value in getting a good education. So sad but it IS up to the students to DO THE WORK - sitting in a classroom all day does no good at all unless one takes what they've been taught and studies/applies the teachings. Horse, Water, need I say more?

  18. The attitude expressed by "teacher" is exactly what is at the root of the taxpayers thinking teachers and the CCSD are vastly overpaid. "teacher" puts all of the responsibility on the students and parents, with teachers being little more that daycare supervisors who present information.

    In truth, a good teacher will do everything possible to instill a desire to learn in their students, which carries over to all classes. This is especially needed for K-5.

    In "teacher's" world there is no reason not to have 100-student classrooms with only a big-screen monitor at the front and security guards posted as needed. That would certainly be cheaper, but hardly educational.

  19. I really think that the kids should not be complaining about how stressfull it is to pass a simple 9th grade level test. Wait till they get out in the real world away from being sheltered by their parents, and have to deal with the realities of making money to pay for the simple things in their lives and the bills and competition among adults fighting to either get a job or keep the job they have. Making ends mee to pay there bills so that collectors and repo people stay off their back. These children do not understand the true meaning of stress. For the kids that complain and cry about it being to stressfull, they should of stayed focused and studied during there middle school and Highschool years to be prepared. That is part of what being a adult is... a perpared mind is a ready mind.. Also, the saying "Poor planning leads to Poor Performance.."

  20. @vaudevillia I completely understand the difficulty of your profession and I am very sorry for the discrepancies. However, as someone who took these proficiencies in ~2004 I must say they are painfully simple. If a student cannot wield basic skills of grammar, mathematics and (SO VERY) basic science, they haven't earned a high school degree. Whether we give them one or not they are bound to fail and we shouldn't enable it.

  21. BOFTX, you are part of the problem, not the teacher. Why should it be someone else's responsibility? That belongs to the student and parent. If they don't have the desire why should the teacher? The teacher can be enthusiastic with students who want to learn, and they are. How do you teach someone to have a desire for anything? And if they have desire they must be willing to work toward their goal. This is a free education. Your attitude yells "entitlement" attitude - someone else is responsible for me and they owe me. You get what you work for and earn what you get. Take some responsibility. There is no reason to skip school, refuse homework and failing tests for 12 years. I'm sure you believe there is no reason to succeed because the government will take care of you or the police will violate your rights and pay you. No education, can't follow rules and dependency on others will result in the police being your daycare provider. Then you can blame them. Very sad.

  22. Manlaw,

    I suspect almost every reader here is wondering how you put that description on me given my well-known position on most social issues. :)

    Parents bear the primary responsibility for teaching their children before entering school the importance of learning. After that, it is the teachers responsibility to do that if the parents have failed to do so.

    Having a good education is vital to being a good citizen. If the parents can not instill a desire to learn in their children then the teachers must make every effort to do so at the youngest age possible.

    This is not an "entitlement" mentality. It is in fact just the opposite. The reason I fully support public education is that by having every child receive a quality education it is less likely that they will be a burden upon society later and also make better decisions in the voting booth. It is in my direct self-interest as a taxpayer to have the schools produce self-supporting members of society.

    For one reason or another, too many parents fail in their duty. Our schools have no choice but to step up. Any teacher who does not want to teach children not only how to learn, but the need to learn, and create that need to learn in their students is failing in their job.

    Any teacher that sees their job as being nothing more than providing material and administering tests to how much has somehow seeped in doesn't deserve the title.

  23. We are not even addressing the needs of gifted students. I know my 14 yo freshman is not at all challenged in Las Vegas schools. When he was in 6-7th grade I home schooled him and by 8th grade he had passed all of the Nevada state HS curriculum. But our district won't let him graduate until he is at least 16.

    I fought and he passed all of the proficiency exams as a freshman with near perfect scores to prove the point he should be supported to start community college before age 16. Yet now the requirement for CSN even if I pay 100% of his tuition which saves our district money he can't attend without a high school diploma - which again you have to wait until he is 16!!

    Our drop out rate among bright students is very high in Nevada, but all the resources are pushed toward the lowest achieving students.

    My son is bored to death and thinks all of the other students he goes to school with are morons. His HS Airforce JR ROTC squadron does not have enough kids with passing grades to even compete in drill competition!!!

    It is a push toward the bottom. My kid was a straight A weighted honors GPA student and now he feels like why even try because in everything in Las Vegas schools you are held back for the kids who don't know anything.

    And a wag of the finger to other parents. ParentLink updates your kids grades online several times a day! You know when your kid is not doing the work. I get a text message everytime a grade changes for one of my four kids and I take the 30 seconds to check their grade. If my kids don't get their work done - NO PRIVLEDGES PERIOD end of story. That means no TV, cell phone, computer, video games, or visiting their friends. It amazes me how kids who are SUSPENDED from school are still posting on twitter!

    Every teacher my kids have had in this district replies to email in less than 24 hours. I have no excuse not to know what they are up to.

    Don't blame it on income level Shadowridge HS is in a pretty affluent area filled with some pretty dim bulbs at that school. I can only imagine how hard it must be for kids at the schools with even more socio economic challenges.

    It is time for CCSD to have a gifted high school so the kids who get it and get it quickly feel challenged and remain excited to learn. Too many parents tell me how their smart teens just drop out which is a huge mistake for their future.

  24. Good luck everyone. You can do it. Have faith in yourselves.

  25. Teachers have a standard to achieve just as any other profession. Our standard is called the Proficieny exam, and other mandated district tests.

    Try writing a coherent, 5 paragraph one page essay on a topic you have never seen until you read the prompt. One of the past ones was "Do you think that students should be able to drop out of school before the age of 18? Support your position." Make sure that you use correct spelling, punctuation, and have no other grammatical errors. Now, do it a second time on a completely different subject. Oh, you don't have any reference materials like a dictionary. Make sure your essay supports your position. It will be handwritten, and must be legible. It will be graded by three different evaluators and your score will the average of those scores. Now do it all over again on another topic that you have never seen. That's just the writing exam.

    Here is a link to a practice math exam. http://nde.doe.nv.gov/Assessment/HSPE/HS......
    Why don't you look at it, see how well you do. It will cover everything that you learned in math from elementary school to algebra and geometry. The only reference material you may use is the formula sheet in the front of the test. You may NOT use a calculator. Now tell me "close enough" is acceptable.

  26. Tanker1975: Thanks for posting the link to the math practice exam. I had to take proficiency tests in the early 1980s to graduate from high school. I can tell you that the math exam from then was far more easy than what is expected of students today. A lot of the math that high school students are expected to know I didn't experience until college.

  27. I went on-line and took some of the sample science test. I did not learn anything about the periodic table until I took Chemistry as a Junior. Mind you I didn't even go to high school in CCSD...I went to a small college prep. boarding school. The math test I didn't even bother. Back in the early 90's I went back to school to get a teaching credential. Sat for the teaching proficiency exam passed the first time (took many practice math exams). If you don't use it .. you lose it. All these tests do is teach memory skills. One is much better knowing where to go find the correct answer (if you don't know it off the top of your head or can make a reasonable conclusion by eleminating certain answers). Hence they would be much better accessing ones skills by having a very difficult open note/open book test (that is timed).
    If you all think you are that smart...take the test...I seriously doubt that you will "pass". The reading yes, the science and math doubtful.