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November 30, 2015

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The turnaround:

High school seniors face stark reality: Pass proficiency test or don’t graduate


Senior Raequan Charingto takes notes during a science proficiency exam tutoring session for seniors inside the classroom of science teacher Sergio Lopez at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Monday, April 23, 2012.

Science Proficiency Tutoring at Chaparral

Science teacher Sergio Lopez leads a science proficiency exam tutoring session for seniors at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Monday, April 23, 2012. Seniors have one more chance this school year to pass the proficiency exams, which are mandatory for graduation. 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.

Sergio Lopez stands before a dozen seniors, knowing well the daunting task before them.

The Chaparral High School science teacher and his students have just one week to prepare for the last high school proficiency exam this year.

One week.

One last chance to crack the test.

One last shot at graduation.

Lopez understands the pressure he and his students are under. If his students don’t pass the high school exit exam, they can’t graduate.

Without a high school diploma, they can’t go to college. They can’t find work. They can’t even serve in the military.

“Nothing else matters,” Lopez tells his students. “Don’t go out or anything like that this week. All you should do is study.”

The stakes are high. Of the 459 students in Chaparral’s senior class, 152 — or about a third — still need to pass one or more portions of the exam when it is given in May.

Lopez, Chaparral’s science department chairman, knows the vast majority of these seniors need to pass science, the toughest portion of the exam.

To help prepare its students, Chaparral has pulled out all the stops.

Seniors who still need to pass have been plucked out of their regular classes this week to cram for the exam. Teachers have volunteered to run test preparation sessions during the school day, after school and on Saturdays.

Students and teachers have been shuffled around to accommodate these study sessions, often with student-teacher ratios as low as 5 to 1. While some teachers help students prepare for the test, others have taken on more students — who have been given independent work and quizzes to complete during class.

“It’s been all hands on deck this week,” Principal Dave Wilson said. “Teachers care. They’re pouring their hearts and souls to get seniors to graduate.”


The science portion of the test has five sections: life science, chemistry, earth science, physics and general science. Each day this week has been devoted to a study session on one of these five sections.

On this Monday, Lopez has just four hours to review a year’s worth of biology with a dozen seniors. Other groups of seniors are working with other science teachers, and there’s an afternoon session, as well.

Most seniors were just 10 to 15 questions away from passing the science test, Lopez tells his students.

“Some of you were very, very close,” he says. “By giving you this, hopefully we’ll give you enough to pass.”

But Wilson knows he and his teachers must give these seniors more than just terms and concepts. They also must give these students hope.

After all, by this point in their senior year, these students have failed the test five times. Failing so many times can be extremely discouraging, even devastating for students.

Lopez understands this. Before he launches into his lesson, Lopez tells his students to rip a sheet of paper from their notebooks and write: “I will pass the science proficiency exam.”

The former amateur kickboxer used to put a picture of his boxing opponent up in his bedroom for motivation. For every three-minute match, Lopez put in three hours of practice every day, he tells the students.

“My goal was to beat my opponent. Your goal is the pass the proficiencies,” Lopez says, encouraging his students to practice. “Put this paper up in your room. Positive thinking goes a long, long way.”


Lopez then launches into his lesson on genetics.

“Anyone remember who the father of genetics is?” he asks.

It’s a question these students should have been exposed to starting in middle school.

Lopez is met with silence. He bites his lip, looks down and stares at the blank whiteboard.

Gregor Mendel,” he says finally, writing the name on the board.

Over the next two hours, Lopez weaves through the basics of genetics, reviewing key vocabulary words and concepts: phenotypic and genotypic ratios, homozygous and heterozygous traits, gamete and somatic cells. Monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, mitosis and meiosis. Prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase and cytokinesis.

“With these questions, you need to know the vocabulary or else you’re going to be lost,” Lopez says. “It’s like reading a different language. You need to know the key words.”

For an at-risk “turnaround” school like Chaparral, the proficiency exam’s emphasis on vocabulary and reading comprehension becomes a challenge for educators.

The vast majority of freshmen coming into Chaparral cannot read at grade level, Wilson said. That literacy gap places Chaparral students — the majority of them from minority backgrounds and low-income families — at a disadvantage on these tests.

The exam also changes every few years, Wilson said. The moving target makes it difficult for educators to prepare students adequately for these exams, he said.

Cut scores — which determine whether a student passes — have been raised every few years. This year, the state raised the cut score for reading. Knowing this, Wilson gave his juniors two tests in the fall to see how many of his students would pass the tougher version of the proficiency exam in March.

The scores predicted that only one junior would pass the reading portion of the exam, Wilson found. He redoubled his efforts on reading, and as a result, 91 juniors passed the reading section in March, he said. Still, 184 juniors did not pass.

Despite its struggles, Chaparral has made significant gains in test scores since last year.

Only 32 percent of sophomores passed the math section on their first try last year; 41 percent passed this year.

Click to enlarge photo

Science teacher Sergio Lopez leads a science proficiency exam tutoring session for seniors at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Monday, April 23, 2012. Seniors have one more chance this school year to pass the proficiency exams, which are mandatory for graduation.

Only 27 percent of sophomores passed the reading section on their first try last year; 39 percent did this year.

Overall, Chaparral is on track to have 70 more graduates this year compared with last year, Wilson said. It’s a testament to the turnaround school’s new focus on graduating students, he said.

On the science portion of the exam, chemistry was de-emphasized this year, Lopez said, while other subjects such as biology have been beefed up. Instead of simple two-by-two Punnett Squares to solve for dominant and recessive traits, students this year were given four-by-four Punnett Squares to solve.

The more complex problems and standards threw off many students, said Wilson, who likened the exam to shooting at a small target in the dark.

“We really have no idea what they’re testing because it’s always changing,” he said. “There’s a huge disconnect between the state Department of Education and school districts. If you’re going to change things, then you need to be rolling out in advance what we need to be doing to prepare our kids.”

Granted, even with the best preparation from teachers, there are always students who slack off and fail to apply themselves to their education, Lopez said.

“Some students didn’t take it seriously,” he said. “That’s why they’re in a serious situation.”

But that’s no excuse, Wilson said.

“In the end, it’s our job to motivate kids and give them the information they need to get them to graduate,” he said.


During his lecture, Lopez is interrupted by the morning announcements. After the Pledge of Allegiance, the student speaker reminds seniors over the intercom to pay their fees for their caps and gowns for graduation.

Trenton Edge, a Chaparral senior wearing a T-shirt and basketball shorts, listens intently to the announcements. Last week, the lanky 18-year-old learned he was just 30 points away from passing science on the proficiency exam he took in March. Edge also needs to pass his writing exam before he can graduate in June.

His brother dropped out of Chaparral, Edge says. His mother and uncle, both graduates of Chaparral, are afraid he, too, won’t be able to graduate.

Edge wants to prove his critics wrong. He wants to graduate, he says, and go to the College of Southern Nevada to become an automotive technician.

“I want to prove that I’m better,” Edge says. “I want to be more educated.”

Despite the odds stacked against them, Chaparral students are eager to graduate, Wilson said. Many of his seniors have toiled through 12 years of education and have racked up enough credits to graduate.

The only thing standing between these seniors and their diplomas is a few more points on the high school exit exam, Wilson said.

“The vast majority really want to finish,” he said. “They’re finally facing the music.”

    • Sample questions

      Nevada high school students are given six chances to pass the proficiency exam. The test is first administered in the fall of their sophomore year, twice during their junior year and three times during their 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. What follows are four sample questions (two in math, two in science) similar to what a student might see on the high school proficiency exam:

    • Use the set of numbers below.

      5 5 7 8 9 11 12 17 30 40

      Which of the following numbers, when included in the set, would change the mean but not the median or mode?

      A. 0

      B. 5

      C. 10

      D. 15

      (The correct answer is C)

    • A drama teacher is randomly choosing students for r different roles in a play. There are 8 students from which to choose and the number of possible outcomes is 56. How many roles r are in the play?

      A. r=2

      B. r=3

      C. r=5

      D. r=7

      (The correct answer is A)

    • In a marine ecosystem, disease killed most of the sea otters. This caused the sea urchins and clams to increase in number. As a result, the sea gull population increased and the seaweed population decreased. Identify a secondary consumer in this marine ecosystem.

      A. Seaweed

      B. Sea urchin

      C. Sea gull

      D. Clam

      (The correct answer is C)

    • During its lifetime a star’s absolute brightness

      A. steadily increases.

      B. steadily decreases.

      C. remains constant.

      D. fluctuates.

      (The correct answer is D)

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