Column: no shortcut to success on math proficiency

Last week, juniors and seniors around the state took the high school proficiency exam in mathematics. To graduate from high school in Nevada, students must pass this exam. For juniors, this was their second attempt.

For seniors, this was their fifth go around for this test. If they have the credits to graduate, these kids and their families must be getting pretty concerned.

The proficiency exam in math covers topics such as algebra, geometry, probability and statistics, to name a few. As a person trying to prepare material to assist teachers in preparing their kids for this exam, the job can sometimes feel overwhelming.

If we just looked at the geometry section, students would need to know how to find angles, areas, perimeters, circumference, constructions, volumes, congruence, similarity and transformations.

While that might not seem like so much, if we break that down further and just look at the study of angles, I might be able to give you a clue why it's difficult to successfully remediate students having trouble on the test.

What would be so difficult about studying angles? I personally don't find that particularly difficult. However, when you see the scope of that study, you can begin to see why kids are overwhelmed.

Most of us know how to name angles; we have acute, right, obtuse and straight angles. Then we have angle pairs, there are adjacent angles, vertical, complementary and supplementary angles. Moving on, we have angle pairs formed by parallel lines and students are responsible for knowing those relationships, corresponding, alternate interior, alternate exterior and same side interior.

As we continue in our study, students are also expected to know about angles associated with polygons. For instance, the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180. The sum of the exterior angles of a polygon is 360, and the formula for the sum of the interior angles of a polygon is given by the formula (n-2)180.

I know you know we are not done with the study of angles. We still have to look at circles. There are central angles, inscribed angles, angles formed by the intersection of two chords, angles formed by secant lines and angles formed by tangents and radii.

There are a couple of points I want to make here. The first point I want to make is there is a lot to learn in the geometry section. All I have discussed within that section is the study of different kinds of angles the students would be responsible for knowing and working with on the high school proficiency exam. That's a lot of stuff just dealing with angles!

The second important point is that this test is not easy to remediate because of the sheer volume of information. Students must study and review on a regular basis or they will forget this material. If all students do is study for a teacher's test and then forget the material because of a lack of review, they may find their high school graduation threatened.

The third point is that teachers have to do everything humanly possible so kids will not forget material they have been taught. That means that even though teachers have even more material to teach, they have to find time to regularly review previously learned material.

I would make a couple of recommendations. Since the high school proficiency exam is a cumulative test, it's more important than ever that students keep good notes. Without those notes, since books are collected at the end of every year, I don't know how kids would be able to effectively review for this test.

Another recommendation. The year-end ritual of students throwing their notes away on the last day of school has to end.

A third recommendation, students must regularly review their old notes over vacations. The result of not doing that diminishes memory.

Teachers cannot rely on good intentions of parents and students. They should weave regular reviews in their own course work by linking new material to old. Those connections will review and reinforce student knowledge.

This exam is fair. If students prepared for it over time, they would not experience a lot of difficulty. However, this is not an exam you can cram for.

There is no shortcut. Teachers have to teach the concepts so students understand the material and can apply it. Remediating by showing students a lot of sample problems will not help kids pass this test. Teachers who review by simply going over problems will have their students holding the short end of the stick with the slightest variation in a problem.

Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a member of the Nevada Board of Education. His views do not necessarily reflect those of other members. His e-mail address is


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