Math failures just tip of iceberg

The Nevada State Board of Education responded to Gov. Kenny Guinn's request of state agencies not to create new programs and to keep spending down.

The board decided not to go forward with bill draft requests for additional instructional days, additional staff development days, some test development activities and additional remediation funding. While the board supports these, they also understand the budget constraints faced by this governor.

In other action, the board will draft a bill to have the state reach the national average on per pupil expenditures over the next couple of bienniums. Nevada ranks near the bottom in this category - approximately $580 per student below the national average.

With respect to special education, the board approved the caseload reductions to the extent that new money from a federal grant would cover the costs. That means that local districts will not have to go into their already tight budgets to further subsidize special education.

The board also got the report on the high school proficiency exam in mathematics. One out of every four seniors is currently failing the graduation test. This exam is based on the 1994 standards adopted by the state board. The high fail rate on the current test is just the tip of the iceberg. The new standards, created by the Council to Establish Academic Standards were implemented this year and will be tested in October 2001.

Based upon what is happening in other states, I will predict that only about one in 10 will be able to pass the new graduation exams. In my judgment, the implementation of these new tests will be the first step in dismantling the state's education accountability system.

Why is the failure rate so high, and will it go higher? The Council to Establish Academic Standards is demanding teachers cover more material than their students can possibly understand or master.

That forced march through material does not allow teachers to fully or appropriately develop concepts, nor does it allow time for application.

That can clearly be seen on the current graduation test. Students can do simple one-step problems that have been basically memorized. But any variation in a problem results in great difficulty. Kids are not understanding the concepts, linkages or applications because teachers are continually forced to move on before the students truly have a grasp of the material.

Let's look at a couple of examples. Most students would get this simple proportion problem correct. The ratio of children to adults at a show is 2 to 1. If there are 95 adults present, how many children are at the show? That's a pretty straightforward one-step problem.

Let's look at another ration and proportion problem. There are 2,820 cars in town. The ratio of midsize to compacts is 7 to 4, and the ratio of compacts to full-size cars is 8 to 9. How many full-size cars are there?

My guess is many students would not be able to solve that problem. Why? Teachers had to move on once the students learned how to do simple one-step problems - they did not have time to make sure the kids really understood the concepts behind ratio and proportion. The end result of covering too much material is students cannot work applications because they were never given time to understand the material - mastery takes a backseat to coverage.

So if students come across a problem that is slightly different than the ones they did in class, they are lost.

There's more to learning than just covering material, at least from my perspective. I expect students to understand concepts and see linkages, to use correct vocabulary and notation, to know important facts and procedures, to be able to apply their knowledge and to use technology appropriately.

When only 10 to 15 percent of the students pass the new high school graduation exams in October of 2001, the state's accountability (testing) system will be dismantled. Rigor should be measured by depth of knowledge, understanding and application - not just by adding more material to an already bloated curriculum.

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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