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July 7, 2015

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Education:

State considering changing high school exit exam to ACT

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Leila Navidi

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

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Soon, Nevada high school students may no longer have to take the dreaded High School Proficiency Exam every March.

The Nevada Department of Education is considering shifting to a new high school exit examination that some educators say would give a better indication of a student’s college and career readiness.

Currently, Nevada high school students take the High School Proficiency Exam, a state-standardized test first administered in the 10th grade that measures mastery of mostly ninth-grade material in reading, math, writing and science. State law mandates that all students pass this exam — colloquially called the “proficiencies” — to graduate from high school.

However, not all universities and colleges across the country recognize or accept the proficiency exam results. They use national college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT to determine admission and whether a student is college-ready or would require remedial classes.

Although remediation rates have hovered around 33 percent statewide since 2007, it has been increasing at some Nevada universities such as UNLV.

In 2007, about 6 percent of Nevada high school graduates enrolled at UNLV were taking remediation courses. In 2011, nearly a third of Nevada graduates were in remediation.

That has alarmed state higher education leaders and school district administrators who point to the financial burden of remediation courses for college students who should have learned the material during their primary education. College students who take remedial courses have a lower graduation rate and often take longer to graduate — a major problem in a state looking to education as a panacea for its economic woes.

Federal education leaders have also taken notice, requiring that states have assessments that measures students’ college and career readiness in order to receive a waiver to the stringent and controversial federal No Child Left Behind law. Nevada submitted its waiver application late last month.

In light of these developments, higher education leaders and some school districts are now pushing the state education department and political leaders to begin looking for an alternative high school examination that is nationally recognized, better aligned to more rigorous curriculum standards, and can be used to gauge a student’s college and career readiness.

National standardization has become a major issue for policymakers across the country as they have increasingly begun using student performance and testing data to drive education funding and policies. Currently, each state has its own curriculum, education standards and subsequently tests to measure student achievement.

Last year, Nevada adopted the “Common Core” standards, which are being used by 45 other states. These new, and some say tougher, education standards are being used to drive more rigorous curricula and exams nationally.

Although Nevada’s proficiency exam has been revised as recently as two years ago to follow the “Common Core” standards, it may soon be replaced by more nationally accepted alternatives. A legislative committee on Wednesday heard reports from the state education department and national education organizations that looked at potential replacements.

One alternative exam that is gaining traction around the country is the ACT, which tests high school students in English, math, reading and science.

Eleven states have current or planned policies that require high school students to take the ACT. None of these states, however, use ACT scores as a graduation requirement — it is only used to gauge students’ college readiness.

The ACT is also gaining traction in Nevada. Starting this spring, the state’s third-largest school district — the Lyon County School District — will administer versions of the ACT to students in grades seven to 11. The expected cost is $50,000.

Further, the Nevada System of Higher Education approved a resolution earlier this month that made the ACT and SAT an official requirement for admission to UNLV and UNR starting in fall 2013. Currently, UNLV accepts an ACT score of 22 in lieu of its official requirement of a 3.0 high school grade point average. (A score of 18 is seen as being college ready.)

However, there are several hurdles for educators advocating that the ACT replace the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam, said Keith Rheault, the outgoing state superintendent of public instruction.

Because the proficiency exam is a state requirement for graduation, it would take legislative action to overturn. It also has been administered for over 15 years by New Hampshire-based nonprofit test maker Measured Progress at an annual cost of $2.8 million, or about $37 per exam.

Requiring students to take the ACT would shift the cost from individual students (as it is now) to the states, Rheault said. Administering the ACT may cost up to $52 per exam, he added.

Since Nevada has adopted the “Common Core” standards, the state is also obligated to begin testing and phasing in a new high school exit exam that is still in development by a consortium of 27 states, including Nevada. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — funded in part by a federal grant and contributions from member states — is expected to roll out its new electronic high school exit exam by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

While policymakers navigate the new test options, there is a lot at stake for test makers who stand to gain — and lose — millions of dollars in state contracts.

“If I were an outside (test) vendor, I’d be concerned about future revenues,” Rheault said. “A new exam would mean we would drop the HSPEs.”

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