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September 5, 2015

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The Turnaround:

High schoolers struggling in math know failure has life-long consequences

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Leila Navidi

Math teacher Michael Nalley teaches students during a math proficiency jam session at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011.

Math Class at Chaparral

Math teacher Michael Nalley teaches Algebra 2/Trigonometry Honors class at Chaparral High School on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. Launch slideshow »

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking efforts by the Clark County School District to improve student performance at five struggling schools.

Judging by the looks on their faces, they may as well have been seated in midday detention rather than a test prep session, two dozen students gathered in a Chaparral High School classroom one recent morning. They were quiet, glum. A two-mile run followed by 500 push-ups would have been more enjoyable.

Each was there to prepare for the upcoming statewide proficiency exam for math. Just 164 of 844 Chaparral juniors and seniors had previously passed the test, a key step on the road to a high school diploma in Nevada. So teacher Mike Nalley stood at the front of the classroom talking circles, triangles and probabilities. His gentle demeanor and soft-spoken approach were seemingly perfect for this uncertain group of math students.

Jesse Chavez, a junior, was one of the teens in the tiered, college hall-style classroom. He scored between 220 and 230 the first time he took the test, well below the 252 needed to pass, a cut-off mark that is set to climb to 300 next year amid the nationwide push for tougher testing standards.

The results were especially perplexing for Jesse, who said he routinely received A’s and B’s in introductory courses to algebra and geometry, a not-so unusual occurrence for youngsters who regularly turn in their homework, participate in class, complete extra-credit assignments, and test well on classroom quizzes and exams; yet fail to make the cut on standardized tests. Some suffer from test anxiety. Others simply lack the skills to excel on the 40-question test.

The 17-year-old needs help with graphing linear equations, a challenging concept for students who have trouble producing images on the “x” and “y” axes through the crunching of basic equations. “It’s a lot of pressure. If you don’t pass the test, all those credits you’ve got are worth nothing,” he said. “The GED is worth nothing.”

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Math teacher Michael Nalley teaches Algebra 2/Trigonometry Honors class at Chaparral High School on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011.

Forty years ago the United States had a vibrant manufacturing base and such students might have been placed on a vocational track, one that would have found them taking basic math, English, history and shop and auto classes, all the while preparing students for good-paying jobs that did not require a college education or even a high school diploma. In today’s global economy, where a multitude of blue-collar jobs have been shipped overseas amid the corporate pursuit for lower wages and less-stringent regulatory standards, educators, politicians, business leaders and parents argue that our students need more developed math and reading skills to compete with their international counterparts.

Jesse is on a college track, as are most high school students within the Clark County School District. Many teens who never would have taken standardized math tests 30 years ago are required to do so today, and that has contributed to the decline in U.S. student performance on the exams, placing this country significantly beneath its foreign counterparts.

High school students in the U.S. ranked 25th amid their counterparts from 34 countries on standardized math tests, according to a report released last year by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

In all, 470,000 students worldwide took the exam. Asian countries and regions, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, all outpaced the U.S., as did Finland.

Meantime, Nevada’s public schools ranked 46th on a list of 50 states plus the District of Columbia and U.S. military bases for standardized math tests for fourth-graders and eighth-graders assessed for math and reading. If U.S. students are scoring poorly on standardized math tests, Nevada’s youngsters are performing especially poorly.

Chaparral’s standardized test scores and graduation rates are among the lowest in the 308,000-student school district. The Clark County School District is responsible for seven of every 10 Nevada public school students, and the district’s top two administrators, who assumed their jobs within the past year, are pushing for more stringent course work and a greater mix of test prep.

“This is a national issue. When we look at what’s going on in our state we’re not exposing the kids to enough rigor when they leave the fifth grade,” said Pedro Martinez, the school district’s deputy superintendent, who assumed the job earlier this year after a similar stint with the Washoe County School District.

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Junior Dustin Elias-Odgers listens as teacher Megan Bires helps him during Pre-calculus Honors at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011.

Martinez argues that Clark County public school students have not been adequately prepared for 9th-grade algebra. Other U.S. school districts in the nation teach algebra and geometry in middle school, prompting Clark County to adjust its math curriculum so fifth-graders will begin learning basic algebra. “When our kids are leaving elementary school they should have been exposed to algebraic concepts and advanced math concepts already,” Martinez said.

Tarrance Thomas, a 17-year-old junior in that same test prep class with Jesse Chavez, embraces that argument. He speaks up as a visitor asks the students to identify the holes in their math education. The 6-foot-5 basketball player and his mom recently moved from Detroit, where Tarrance said he received little classroom feedback. Last year’s teacher in his Michigan classroom taught Tarrance and his classmates from workbooks, a discredited method of classroom instruction for students who need to be engaged with regular feedback from active, fully engaged teachers.

Tarrance has flailed around for years when attempting to performing long division. That educational hole places him at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to solving basic algebraic equations. The failure to grasp the simplest concepts will likely place Tarrance at a distinct disadvantage on Nevada’s upcoming math proficiency exam. “I don’t think I’m ready for it,” he says, a frown replacing a smile.

Chaparral High School Principal David Wilson refers to math as “the gatekeeper” that determines the success or failure of high school and college students. Those who pass will move on. Those who don’t will fail and may be “absolutely, positively” sentenced to a lifetime of weak professional and earnings prospects. Students will have five opportunities to pass the exam.

Wilson and Math Department Chairwoman Megan Bires have set up daily test prep courses such as the one attended by Jesse and Tarrance. In the days leading to the Nov. 1 offering of the next statewide math proficiency exam they will steer more students to the daily prep classes. The performance of students, teachers and school administrators largely hinges on the results on the math proficiency exams as well as related tests for writing, reading and science. The academic and professional stakes are high, and Wilson has pushed the transfer of at least one math teacher since the start of the school year after he concluded that the educator was not able to adequately meet the academic needs of students.

Bires, a six-year veteran of Chaparral, is philosophical about the challenge. She spends 11-hour days at school, teaching classes, helping coordinate the efforts of her colleagues and staying several hours after class to tutor students, whether or not they are in her math classes.

She has pushed for smaller, more frequents assessment exams within the school, quizzes every three to four days to provide students with greater feedback. The school district has provided some Chaparral math classrooms with a new technology that allows students to provide instant responses to classroom questions. The responses are tabulated by a computer program that permits Bires and her colleagues to determine the concepts that provide the greatest challenges to students. The same program has begun to be deployed at other district schools. “Yes, we like to teach our subject matter, but proficiency for us is game day,” Bires said.

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Junior Jennifer Little works on a math problem during Pre-calculus Honors class at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011.

William Acoba, a 16-year-old junior, embraces the sports metaphor. He has trouble factoring equations, the bane of many students who have struggled with multiplying, dividing, adding or subracting “x” and “y” terms to the second degree. The teen finds it especially difficult to concentrate during his second-period math class. “There are too many distractions,” said William, who has considered the implications of failing to pass the test.

“It means I’ll have a hard time paying the bills with mom. If I have kids I want to get them what they want, what they need — food, clothing, an education. That’s why I have to pass this test.”

Chaparral’s Bires understands his fears. She has heard them many times during her short teaching career. “The test is huge. It’s incredible and has been for several years now,” she said. “Math is so cumulative. That’s why it’s so hard, but these kids are smart, not lazy.” She and her colleagues plan to spend five days a week leading to the Nov. 1 test preparing students with a focused approach that targets the individual needs of students.

“Just because you can do math doesn’t mean you can teach it,” she said. “The students talk. If they want help with math I will jump up and down to do it.” She plans to be in her classroom from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in the coming weeks, making herself accessible to all students who want to knock down one more barrier on the road to a high school diploma. “I believe everybody should have a chance to go to college as opposed to everybody should go to college.”

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