Column: new academic standards impacting other decisions

As I look on the horizon, I see a train approaching. Unfortunately, I'm on the track with a lot of other educators just waiting to get run down. Some might suggest getting out of the way.

The problem is we are stuck in this position and the people in charge of the locomotive have trouble seeing beyond the front of the train.

If this was not such a serious problem, it might be funny. The fact is that as politicians play in the eduational arena, they are too busy making policy by sound bite as opposed to thinking a problem through to determine the pros and cons of their thoughts.

For instance, on one hand, you have legislators pushing for alternative licensure of teachers. But those same legislators want to increase the passing scores on teacher licensing tests.

Nevada uses the PRAXIS series for licensure. Educational Testing Service has indicated that their test is not a good measure of what teachers need to know or be able to do. ETS is making a new test. Do you really think that business people who have been out of college 20 or 30 years can pass this test which includes differential and integral calculus? The answer is no!

The bottom line is you can't support increasing a passing score on a qualifying test and at the same time want to increase the number of people entering the teaching profession through alternative licensure. Those positions are in conflict.

But worse, I don't believe the people supporting both those ideas have a clue they are in conflict. The train is getting closer.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when speaking to a leading legislator in the state about the new, more rigorous academic standards. In order for the students to reach these standards, students will have to take more math, science and social studies classes. That's an idea many support. They also have a tendency to support the fine arts and vocational education. But more math, science and social studies (economics) classes translate to fewer classes in vocational education and the fine arts. That again is a conflict that is having difficulty being recognized.

Add to that conflict the teacher shortage in math, science, second language and special education and how that might have a negative impact on student achievement - not to mention the state not offering a competitive salary to attract or retain the best teachers. How can the state expect students to pass more rigorous exams in math and science if they won't guarantee students a qualified teacher?

If other states serve as an example, October 2001 is the month Nevada's Educational Reform statute loses its luster. That's when the rubber will finally hit the road - the smell will be horrific. I will estimate that between 10 and 15 percent of the student population will pass the new high school proficiency exams on the first attempt.

When more affluent parents see their sons' and daughters' high school graduation placed in jeopardy, the state's accountability program will begin to crumble. A move to make public education more accountable, a move that was good, will be a bust because nobody bothered to address the conflicts in their own positions. Sadly, I don't believe the people supporting these tougher tests have a clue to what's on them.

The business person taking over the Chicago schools found out the hard way about teaching to tests instead of the curriculum. To increase test scores, teachers were directed to teach to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. While those scores went up, scores on other state and national tests went down. I have a concern that teachers will begin teaching to the new high school proficiency exams in math, reading, writing, science and probably social studies to help kids pass the proficiency exams. If that happens, real learning will suffer.

Hopefully the lesson provided by the CEO of the Chicago schools will give Nevadans additional insight. Raising test scores by teaching to a particular test is in conflict with providing a sound educational experience.

Rather than address these educational issues based on a party platform, it's time the players sat down and thought through the implications of their positions. We must understand that decisions impact other decisions and policies. We must strive for a balance and address these conflicts; otherwise, the pendulum will swing too far and we'll be exerting a lot more energy trying to move it back the other way. All the while, students' educations will be placed at risk.

Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a member of the Nevada Board of Education. His views do not necessarily reflect those of other members. His e-mail address is


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