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August 31, 2015

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The turnaround:

As graduation day nears, burden of passing proficiency exams weighs heavily on seniors

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Leila Navidi

Senior Laneisha Hopson reacts to the good news that she passed her Nevada High School Proficiency Exams with her guidance counselor Abby Jones, left, at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, April 18, 2012.

Proficiency Exam Results at Chaparral High

Senior Isai Chavarria reacts to the news that he passed the science and writing Nevada High School Proficiency Exams at Chaparral High School on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Launch slideshow »

What is a turnaround school?

The Clark County School District implemented the "turnaround" model at five of its worst-performing schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Four of these schools — Chaparral, Mojave and Western high schools, and Hancock Elementary School — received a piece of a three-year, $8.7 million federal School Improvement Grant to improve test scores and for the high schools, graduation rates. As part of the turnaround model, the principal and at least half of the staff were replaced at each school, and schools were required to implement new programs and teaching methods to improve student achievement.

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.

A few months ago, Laneisha Hopson learned she was just one point away from graduating in June.

The 17-year-old Chaparral senior scored a 299 on the science portion of Nevada’s high school proficiency exam when she took the test this past fall. The passing score – and Hopson’s ticket to graduation – is 300.

So it was no surprise Hopson was nervous Wednesday morning as she sat in a small conference room decorated with college pennants. She was awaiting her scores from science proficiency exam she took in March.

“Nervous?” guidance counselor Abby Jones asks, as she pores through the stack of papers containing the answer to Hopson’s burning question: Will I get to graduate?

Hopson nods, squeezing her hands together.

“You got a 303,” Jones says. “It’s passing. You passed.”

Hopson buries her head in her arms. When she comes back up a second later, she flashes a big smile.

“I’m so happy,” Hopson says. “I’m so proud. This just made my day!”

“You should be,” Jones says, beaming. “All this work you put in. I’m so happy for you. You’re graduating!”

•••

As the results from the March assessment of the state proficiency results came in last week, nerve-wracking meetings such as Hopson’s played out in classrooms and guidance offices across the valley.

High school seniors – who hadn’t passed the exam yet – were those most eager to find out their scores. After all, they can’t graduate if they don’t pass.

Nevada high school students are given six chances to pass the proficiency exam. The test is first administered in the fall of the sophomore year, twice during the junior year and three times during senior year. The standardized exam tests students on mostly ninth-grade material in reading, writing, math and science. Once a passing score is achieved in each of the four areas, a student no longer must take the exams. But by law, all students must pass the proficiencies to graduate from a Nevada high school.

At a “turnaround” high school like Chaparral, results of these high-stakes tests weigh especially heavily on school administrators, teachers and students.

After all, federal funding and teacher jobs are on the line if the school doesn’t meet its testing benchmarks. But ultimately, it’s the students who suffer the most from the consequences of the Clark County School District’s failure to educate them.

This year, Chaparral began receiving more than $1 million as part of a three-year, federal School Improvement Grant in an ambitious effort to turn around the school. The once high-performing school had grown anemic over the years. In 2011, just a third of its senior class graduated.

Chaparral’s principal and more than half of its staff were replaced, and the struggling high school redoubled its efforts to help its students. Under the new principal, Dave Wilson, a renewed focus on discipline, order and academics has been restored.

Wilson threw everything he could think of at his students: a barrage of test-prep teachers, after-school tutoring and Saturday school to help his students pass the exam. As a result, Chaparral is on track to meet all of its federally-mandated testing benchmarks by the end of the year, Wilson said.

Despite the improvements, about 196 Chaparral seniors need to pass one or more proficiencies in May. That’s out of 465 students in the senior class, but down from more than 300 students who needed to pass before the March exam.

After the March testing, there’s only one more shot, one more chance to earn passing scores and graduate. And it’s coming fast. The final test administration for seniors occurs in the first week of May.

“Imagine being here for four years, doing the work, passing the classes and coming down to passing a proficiency exam and missing it by a few points,” Wilson says. “That’s the thing that’s going to hold you up? It’s scary.”’

•••

At a “turnaround” school like Chaparral, happy stories like Hopson’s – characterized by broad smiles, celebratory hugs and fist pumps in the air – are hard to come by as graduation day approaches.

That’s because while most at-risk seniors improved their scores after taking each test – inching toward graduation – only a few actually made it across the bar.

“I hate this time of year,” says Rowena Manibusan, an eight-year veteran guidance counselor. “It’s good to tell the ones who’ve passed, but very few have passed this time around.

“It’s just awful,” she continues. “I’ve had kids cry, kids who you never thought would cry. You just try to give them hope.”

And that’s the conundrum. At this point, it’s difficult to encourage seniors who already have failed the exams five times to persevere.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” guidance counselor Jones says. “It’s crunch time. It’s really stressful, but the fourth quarter is all about kicking-it-in-gear time.”

After meeting with Hopson, Jones had to deliver some bad news to Diana Guillen. The 17-year-old senior fell just 11 points short of passing the science exam.

“I thought I passed because I took my time,” a visibly discouraged Guillen tells Jones. “I was one of the last ones done.”

“You have to take it slow, go back, double-check,” Jones says, encouraging Guillen to take practice tests online and come to Saturday school. “You’re very, very close. You can do it. You just need that last bit of cramming.”

Guillen is determined to pass her last proficiency in May, but she says she is frustrated. She’s also scared she won’t graduate.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “There are so many tests you’ve got to worry about. It’s stressing. I don’t get (the point), but I don’t have a choice.”

Principal Wilson understands Guillen’s frustrations. Wilson is a proponent of changing the proficiency exams to the ACT exam, a nationally recognized college entrance examination being considered by the state as an alternative high school exit exam.

The current proficiency exams are only used to determine whether if a student can graduate, Wilson says. Results cannot be used by college admissions or even high schools for placement in classes.

“What are they trying to demonstrate (with this exam)?” Wilson says. “There’s no other significance besides checking the box for graduation. That’s a huge weakness.”

•••

Oracio Carlin clasps his hands. A gold cross dangles across his white T-shirt.

Guidance counselor Manibusan shuffles through the papers.

“Science, 254,” she tells Carlin. “You need 300 to pass. Almost there.”

Carlin bites his lip as he casts his eyes downward.

“Math, 100,” Manibusan says after a pause. “You need 242.”

Carlin lets out a sigh. He struggles not to tear up.

Manibusan asks Carlin if he’s thought about attending Saturday school. Carlin says he hadn’t. He works most nights and weekends as a cashier and cook at a nearby Carl’s Jr. to help support his family of six.

But flipping burgers and counting change is not what Carlin wants for his future, he tells Manibusan. He wants to attend College of Southern Nevada and become an automotive technician.

“I’m afraid, but I’m not going to give up,” Carlin says, fighting back tears. “I’m going to keep on trying.”

If he doesn’t pass in May, Carlin could come back as a fifth-year senior to finish his exams, Manibusan tells him. Or he still can attend the graduation ceremony and receive a certificate of attendance, Manibusan says.

But Carlin says that’s not an option for him.

“To me, walking that stage and getting that certificate of attendance is no good,” he says, dejectedly. “It’s fake.”

“That’s not the way to look at it,” Manibusan, says, as she tries to console him. “Some people have a hard time on tests. You worked hard and passed your classes. You can’t let test scores define you.”

“But I don’t want 12 years of school going down the drain,” Carlin says. “I want to get a high school diploma.”

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