High Failure Rate on Health Challenge Exam Prompts Questions
January 30, 2013
The results of the biannual Health Challenge Exam have been revealed from last November’s test: an unprecedented zero out of 42 students passed with the required score equivalent to a letter grade of A or B.
Since then, the exam has been widely discussed among Dos Pueblos students, parents, faculty and administration, raising questions of fairness and necessity—among others—for one hotly contested debate.
There is a long history to the Health Challenge exam at Dos Pueblos, and many of its changes have occurred gradually, something that the passing rate has also reflected—until now.
Starting off sky-high at 81% in 2008 and dropping towards 51% by 2011, it took a nosedive in 2012 with a total 5% of students passing the tests issued in March and November.
The question for many is: what is the source of this change? More importantly: what can we do about it?
English teacher of 23 years and parent to a future Charger, Todd Borden, weighs in on the “nagging disquiet” he experienced upon learning the results of the most recent Health Challenge exam.
In his experience, he states, at least some portion of the students who take the exam always pass.
As a teacher, his main concern lies with Dos Pueblos’s tradition of highly impressive students and their seemingly incongruous lack of knowledge regarding the health curriculum.
If the questions presented on the Health Challenge are all that similar to that of the course’s final exam, Borden argues, then “it seems to me that an alarmingly few students will pass this test as their final exam.”
According to Assistant Principal, Monica Hammonds, however, the Health Challenge has had a long history of winners, and in most cases, the fight was definitely in the students’ favor.
Yet over time, success has gradually tipped the scale towards excess, says Hammonds, and now it’s time for a change.
She recalls the decade-old Health Challenge exam as inaccurate and outdated, almost to the point of condoning the use of cigarettes.
Following the institution of a state-issued health framework, the health curriculum has shifted its focus in recent years from common sense to scientific credence, resulting in a course that is “much more rigorous…topical…current…and much more factual.”
This change, Hammonds states, is something that the test needs to reflect, especially in an ever-changing field such as health.
The rapid, constant influx of new information is what makes both the tasks of maintaining a health textbook and an up-to-date curriculum seemingly incompatible, and even more so in the digital age.
As a result, keeping the teachers up to date and on the same page with the material is a formidable challenge, one that moves slowly—and bureaucratically.
“Let’s just say, it’s been a 19-year process,” says Hammonds, a former health teacher at San Marcos High School, who also served as head of the district’s health department 10 years ago.
Now, as an administrator, she meets quarterly with the district’s health teachers to complete statistical item analysis on the most recent test questions before discarding those deemed “statistically questionable.”
What follows is a painstaking process of writing, rewriting, debating and determining new test questions.
Those questions, Hammonds says, are added to a growing bank—500 and counting—generated randomly by a computer, and constitute all health class final exams district-wide.
There is a growing—and not unfounded—concern among students and parents that allowing a committee of current and former health teachers to write the test may result in an unfair bias.
A Dos Pueblos parent, whose son—an AP student—attempted the Health Challenge twice and fell short by two questions, has been particularly frustrated and perplexed by what she sees as a lack of consideration for a student’s academic rigor.
“When 32 percent of the kids at any given time are getting D’s and F’s,” she wonders, “why can’t they reward our kids for working hard? It all seems a little questionable.”
Now that her oldest son is a senior, he has no option but to take zero period health during spring semester, but that doesn’t stop her from pressing the issue on behalf of her younger son.
“What is interesting is that each [student] that I know of was told he didn’t pass, but not one received a look at the health test and how many answers were incorrect.”
She adds: “There is obviously something strange about the test and it seems—in my opinion—that they are intentionally trying to fail the smarter kids.”
For Ms. Hammonds, however, it is important that parents and students remember that the Health Challenge is neither a test of intelligence nor common sense, though it certainly used to be.
That “easy, old, outdated, ridiculous test,” she says, is where the true injustice lies.
“It just gave a golden ticket to so many students for so long,” she continues, “and yeah, it hurts when those things get taken away…but it’s just not right, it had to change.”
Based on surveys given to the students who take the test, most of them study between 6 and 12 hours, a ridiculously small amount of preparation, according to Hammonds.
“You’re not going to pass a semester-long class studying for 6 hours,” she points out. “That would be wrong. So [taking the test] is really just the reality of what it means to earn 5 units.”
That reality, says Hammonds, means setting aside the same 80 hours of preparation for the exam as is required to complete the class itself.
Yet for many disheartened students, time—or lack thereof—is a main reason for trying to opt out of health in the first place.
Janelle Nguyen, a senior AP student and varsity swimmer, is relieved that she passed the Health Challenge exam as a freshman, given that her schedule has become increasingly busy with each passing year.
“For some kids, it’s hard to find time,” she reveals. “We want to stack up on our academics and we want to take [classes] we like.”
Health, she adds, “is just another burden.”
While Nguyen prepared for the exam by reading through a library textbook for a couple of hours, she admits that she “wasn’t too stressed” and “used common sense” but knows “a lot of a people who actually spent a lot of time studying.”
Ms. Hammonds has voiced a strong sympathy for students and parents who approach her with their concerns regarding college admissions and academic schedules.
At the same time, she maintains, she cannot justify a pass for students whom she believes have not put in the appropriate amount of work.
“I believe that the new test accurately reflects the curriculum in the class,” Hammonds states. “It reflects what we’re teaching district-wide, [and] it’s forcing all the teachers to get on the same page and work together.”
Since the elimination of the seven-period school day, Hammonds says, Health is no longer a part of the 7th grade curriculum.
It’s one of the reasons that Kristi Anderson left La Colina Junior High three years ago to join Dos Pueblos faculty as a Health teacher.
Many Dos Pueblos upperclassmen, such as senior Avery Hardy, were subject to the former 7th grade health requirement.
As a result, Hardy considers the high school health course little more than a repetition of what was covered in junior high.
“As an IB student, I do want my academic record to reflect someone who takes challenging courses,” she states. “If they were offered at Dos Pueblos, I would definitely be interested in taking a college-level health course.”
In addition to her own interest, Hardy believes that her fellow students would respond well to such a course by “help[ing] them feel like they have more than one option, even if they don’t pass the test.”
While the College Board has yet to develop an Advanced Placement health course, and the road to an Honors health class is paved with barriers, Hammonds believes that “we just haven’t found a way to get it to fit in perfectly.”
At the same time, a new generation of Chargers is sweeping in.
Many of them have never taken a health course before, thanks to the new state standards.
As a result, they seem to lack the urgency of their upperclassmen in regards to the results of the Health Challenge exam.
Could it be that this hot-button issue represents a period of generational transition that may pass quickly out of future discussions?
Only time will tell whether that is the case.
For now, the current Health Challenge exam is a work-in-progress: “We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” declares Hammonds, “but we’re just not quite there yet.”