Educational achievement hinges on opportunities and high aspirations

It's that time of year again when students utter collective sighs and cringe as they are dragged, often against their will, to submit to shopping for appropriate clothing and office supplies.

They wince at the unavoidable reality that another school year will soon begin.

Nothing can be done to stop it. Their fate is sealed.

And if you think the students are feeling uneasy these days, I'll bet it's nothing compared to the queasiness high school math teachers are experiencing.

Teachers report for duty this week around the valley, and this year high school algebra instructors and others will be under scrutiny as the Clark County School District attempts to gain a clearer understanding of where students truly rank in math. To that end, high school students will once again be asked to take The Test.

You remember The Test, don't you?

It was in all the papers.

On the front page.

In bold headlines.

"Clark County students really suck at math," I think the headline read. Perhaps I'm not remembering it quite clearly, but it was something equally embarrassing to an ocean of high schoolers, county schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes, Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Center director Bill Hanlon, and especially high school teachers, department chairpersons, and principals from Searchlight to Summerlin.

The concept for the test was sound. In order to determine how math students were progressing toward local and federal goals, and whether the district was effectively presenting algebra and other skills, the exam would be administered in the winter and spring.

The trouble surfaced after the abysmal winter test results surfaced in the Review-Journal. A majority of students tanked big time.

Then came the finger pointing. Teachers and principals claimed they weren't fully informed of the test's importance. Hanlon said he made a sincere attempt to communicate the gravity of the exam and how it fit into the learning matrix.

A veritable blizzard of excuse slips swirled around the test and its relative importance.

The school district dustup wasn't quieted by an almost equally awful result following the June exam. The test scores, however, once again raised the issues of whether students were learning, and whether changes in everything from curriculum to credit hours and textbooks weren't warranted. (Here's a no-brainer: settle on one algebra text district-wide.)

Public education is only like the weather in that it's something everyone complains about. The fact is we can do something to improve it. But first we have to understand what needs improving.

That's what makes this trip back to school so important. Information and practice tests have been sent to teachers and department chairs. While success is relative in a district with such poor test scores, unlike last year there will be no acceptable excuses for a failure to improve.

That might sound harsh, but the whole valley will be watching to see how well teachers and administrators work together to the benefit of the students.

Resources are available. In fact, I think high school math teachers should challenge Hanlon. They should take advantage of every piece of pertinent material the professional development center has to offer.

Not that there aren't plenty of distractions and challenges. Teaching at any level is difficult in a society that increasingly calls upon its educators to help parent children.

It's an impossible job, but that's why teachers make so much money. (Hold the mail. I was kidding.)

A big part of our gigantic public school district's problem, in my opinion, is that the high school math program doesn't allow for success for students of only average or even below-average ability. That was one of he biggest mistakes of Rulffes' predecessor, Carlos Garcia, who touted algebra for everyone without sticking around long enough to see the results.

For a sizable percentage of students, being forced to pass an algebra exam makes about as much sense as cramming for a rocket science final. It's not that they can't try or aren't being taught, but the fact is general math may be all they're reasonably capable of learning.

That's not dumbing down. That's getting real.

While perusing those back-to-school sales, students, teachers and administrators ought to throw in extra bottles of Excedrin for the upcoming year. Unless those test scores improve, there will be no shortage of headaches around the School District.

And this time not even the most creative excuse will be accepted.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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