Proficiency exams: An imperfect system |

Proficiency exams: An imperfect system

Nevada Appeal editorial board

When the number of Carson High School seniors who couldn’t pass required proficiency exams went from four to 10 in a year, we didn’t see much cause for alarm. It’s tough to see a trend in such a small sample.

But now some broader numbers are in, and there’s clearly a problem. Statewide, 12 percent of seniors aren’t passing the math test. They won’t graduate. In Carson City, that number is 2 percent. So we’re still not overly concerned about CHS.

But there are 2,135 seniors statewide — 1,600 in Clark County alone — who must be wondering what happened.

To be sure, some of them know what happened. They didn’t study, they didn’t work hard and they never expected to pass the proficiency exam.

But many others are like Robyn Collins, a senior at Reed High School in Sparks who carried a 3.0 grade-point average and who has failed the math portion five times.

“I’m not a stupid kid,” she told a reporter. “It is just that in my opinion, the stuff on the test doesn’t equate to anything that I’ve learned in school.”

There are two issues.

The first is the question of whether a high-school diploma should come down to one test. In Nevada, it’s actually three tests — reading, writing and math — but the math portion is the one tripping up the most students.

The second question is whether the test accurately reflects what is being taught in the schools. Many students don’t take algebra or geometry in high school, although both are included in the test.

A bill died in the Legislature that would have postponed administration of the math test until educators went over it again to compare it with school curricula.

On the other hand, passage of the test requires 304 correct multiple-choice answers out of 500 questions — a score of just over 60 percent. Some educators say that leaves plenty of room for gaps in specific topics while still measuring a general knowledge of math.

Nevadans want proficiency exams. They want to know a high-school diploma means meeting a certain standard. They also want some measure of how well tax-supported schools are doing.

We’re confident the trend will reverse, as educators continue to explore ways to match test material with class content. Nevada schools already offer extra classes and tutors to help students, who have several opportunities to pass.

Nevertheless, it’s a hard thing to tell more than 2,000 seniors that it’s an imperfect system.