The results of this year's Nevada High School Proficiency Exam released last week mirror the results in other states. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, the national trend on these high stakes tests usually results in failure rates of 50 percent in math, 40 percent in science, and 30 percent in English/Language Arts.
There are two major differences between Nevada and other states. The first is the other states gave schools time to implement their standards and their tests don't count to the 2003, 2005 or 2005 school year. Nevada's tests counted immediately.
Second, other states' educational funding spending increased dramatically in professional development, recruitment of teachers and for the remediation of students. You can find Nevada's dollar commitment at the bottom of that list.
In other words, Nevada legislators are not putting their money where their mouths are. And to make matters worse, the legislators who talk the most about increased academic standards are the same ones who seem to argue against increased funding and are not able to solve the problems that will be on the high school proficiency exam related to the new standards needed for high school graduation. Those legislators are speaking out of both sides of the mouths.
With that said, I was extremely disappointed in this year's exam results. I would have thought that after last year's turbulent results, that teachers would have spent a lot more time preparing their students for this test. What I am seeing is a disconnect between what students are learning and what teachers are teaching. I am hearing too many teachers indicating "those" students are not doing well, or "those" students did not pass. What I should be hearing is "my" students or "our" students are not doing well. Those words might be indicative of prejudice in the system.
I believe the obvious is not getting through to some teachers. Earlier in the year when I talked to some teachers about preparing students for this important exam, I was hearing things like they don't have time. Or these kids are in their second year of algebra, they don't need a review.
Well, here's a news flash. They do need the review. Students who enter high school taking college prep courses begin by taking two years of algebra and a year of geometry. What that translates to is that high schools are dependent upon the middle school math program to have taught concepts such as introductory probability and statistics.
And if the middle schools did prepare their students well, teachers need to remember that the material was taught three years before they took the test. Does anyone understand the concept of diminished memory over time?
Another issue is time. The new standards added more material to an already bloated curriculum. Teachers are very busy just trying to cover material - that gets in the way of mastering those concepts.
When I spoke to teachers about how they prepared their students for this test, I heard too many teachers tell me they did practice problems. While I'm glad teachers took the time to do that, what bothered me is that too few taught or reviewed the concepts first. That meant students had to memorize too much with too little understanding. When that occurs, any slight variation in a problem will cause students difficulty.
For example, in probability, I would expect teachers to discuss the idea of chance, then define probability as a ratio and show their students how to solve simple one-step problems. After that, I would expect teachers to examine multi-stage problems with their students and list all possibilities. As that process became inefficient, I would then expect teachers to show students how to make tree diagrams as a more formal method of listing all possibilities, than finding the probability on an event based on counting and using the probability ratio.
Fourth, it would seem that teachers would show their students how to construct modified tree diagrams and assign probabilities to each branch of the diagram. And finally, students would learn to find the probability of a multi-stage experiment by finding the product of the probabilities along the path that leads to a particular outcome. That does take time teachers really don't have.
Just doing a lot of problems without understanding, without learning the concept, would leave students high and dry when a problem has the slightest variation.
The bottom line on these tests, regardless how irresponsible the state, is teachers must treat the students in their classrooms the same way they would expect other teachers to treat their own children. All of us expect a good faith effort to help out children (students) succeed.
And a final word to Mom or Dad. These tests are important. Did you make sure your kids prepared for these tests that determine high school graduation?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.