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October 24, 2014

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For some high school seniors, work won’t be rewarded with walk

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L.E. Baskow

Hoku Moreno, a Liberty HS senior who has a 3.5 GPA but failed to pass her proficiency exams, will not be able to walk at her graduation on Monday, May 19, 2014.

Hoku Moreno Liberty High School Graduate

Hoku Moreno, a Liberty HS senior who has a 3.5 GPA but failed to pass her proficiency exams, will not be able to walk at her graduation on Monday, May 19, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Nicole Soria doesn’t know what to do with the stack of invitations she ordered for her daughter’s graduation ceremony.

Several weeks ago, Soria was ready to send them to friends and relatives, who planned to fly in from as far away as Hawaii to celebrate.

But Soria found out last month that her daughter, Kelia “Hoku” Moreno, wouldn’t be able to graduate from Liberty High School. The 18-year-old senior had failed the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam, an exit test the state requires students to pass to earn a diploma.

“My daughter came home crying,” Soria recalled. “She was crushed, absolutely crushed. This exam is the only thing that’s keeping her back.”

Worse yet for Soria and Moreno was knowing that the exam has been scrapped by state lawmakers, who voted to replace it with a series of end-of-course exams. Moreno’s class is one of the last three that will be required to take the exit test as state officials implement the new exams.

“They’re taking away all they were working for because they couldn’t pass a test that has no bearing,” Soria said. “The test doesn’t work. That’s why they’re getting rid of it.”

If not for the exam, Moreno would have soared to graduation. She attained a 3.4 grade-point average in honors and advanced placement classes, founded Liberty’s Pacific Islander club and captained the varsity cheerleading squad.

Hoping to become the first in her family to graduate from college, Moreno was making plans to attend community college, then transfer to the University of Hawaii to study business and finance.

The exam has placed her dreams in jeopardy.

Despite taking test prep courses and working with a tutor, she passed only the writing section. She failed in reading and science, and she fell just one point shy of passing in math.

“There’s so much stress. I sit there, and I can’t think,” she said. “When I found out I didn’t pass, it really made me depressed. I felt like my life was over.”

Moreno can take the exam again in July, her seventh try in three years.

But no matter what happens during her next attempt, she will have missed out on what was to be a treasured moment: walking across the stage at graduation with her friends.

In previous years, Moreno would have been allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony thanks to a provision that allowed students who failed the test to receive a “certificate of attendance.” But that provision was eliminated last year when Nevada lawmakers passed a new law changing the state’s graduation requirements and establishing the new exams. Legislators feared the certificates were being mistaken for actual diplomas and wanted to raise student expectations for graduation.

Nationally, 25 states award certificates of attendance. About 1,000 Clark County students receive the certificates each year.

“To me, this certificate of attendance was unacceptable because we were telling kids, ‘Thanks for showing up,’ ” said Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who led the effort to change the requirements. “We were doing a disservice to these kids. We were giving them a false sense of accomplishment by letting them walk when they have not graduated.”

Soria doesn’t see it that way. For her, the certificate represents 13 years of work. Students should be acknowledged for not giving up, she said.

Soria hopes to convince CCSD officials to allow students like her daughter to walk with their classmates. She has created an online petition, which has garnered more than 1,100 signatures and comments.

Clark County officials, however, are standing firm. Although state law doesn’t forbid school districts from acknowledging students who pass their classes but fail the exit exam, CCSD leaders say the graduation ceremony is an earned privilege, not a right.

“This is a heartbreaking issue, and while I empathize with parents, I’m held accountable to hold students to standards and not make any exceptions,” Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said. “These certificates give students a false sense that they graduated. I can’t be transparent to the community if I let students walk and get something that doesn’t mean anything.”

While Soria is busy collecting signatures, the state is working to replace the current exam after the 2015-16 school year. Current freshmen and eighth-graders, who are piloting the new tests, won’t have to pass them to graduate. The new exams will begin counting for current seventh-graders and below younger students.

For Moreno and others like her, though, the challenge at hand is to pass the current test, even as it’s headed to the junk heap because of its flaws.

“I’m going to keep trying,” Moreno said. “I’m not going to give up.”

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