Several recent Washington Post stories have focused on revelations that a high percentage of students have failed, or nearly failed, math final exams in the highly regarded Montgomery County Public School system every year over the last five years. In fact, a majority of the 30,000 high school students in the county taking several end-of-semester math exams flunked – and no high school in the Maryland district was spared. Furthermore, final exam scores for some high school biology, English and history courses in Montgomery County show failure rates of 37 to 50 percent, according to this story.
So what’s going on?
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, noting that course completion rates are high even if students flunk their finals, is setting two work groups the task of finding out. But in the following post, teachers in the Math Department at Poolesville High School explain in an open letter what they see as the systemic reasons behind the exam failures.
An Open Letter to
The Parents of Montgomery County Students
The Montgomery County Board of Education
The Washington Post recently published a series of reports on the high failure rates on high-school math final exams in Montgomery County Public Schools. When final exam results in a content area are poor system-wide, it is important to look for system-wide causes and solutions. These problems are not primarily caused by the students, the families or the teachers. The failure rates are the result of policies that have been in place for many years and are having a cumulative effect. The mathematics teachers at Poolesville High School would like to offer our perspective on some of the causes and possible solutions.
- Acceleration. Over the last eight years, a large majority of students have been accelerated through the math curriculum, as teachers and principals have been pressured to meet unrealistic targets. As a result, students have accumulated gaps in their understanding. Dr. Starr has been working to slow acceleration, but the effects linger on and could take many years to overcome. In fact, there is still a target for 71% of students to pass Algebra 1 in 8th grade in 2013 in spite of recommendations by math resource teachers and the 2009 K-12 math workgroup that all targets be removed. All stakeholders need to understand that acceleration cannot substitute for depth of instruction. Even for a relatively small number of highly able students, magnet teachers have recommended the specialized curriculum available in magnet programs rather than acceleration through the standard curriculum.
- Honors curriculum and placement. Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors. The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure. This pattern should not be repeated with the implementation of new curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Students should be placed in courses based on their math performance and their career goals, interests, and needs, and all courses should provide rigorous mathematics instruction.
- Calculator use. The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra. The CCSS emphasizes number sense in the early grades and includes procedural fluency as a goal for all students, and end-of-course assessments will include timed, non-calculator portions. Implementation of this new curriculum should result in more appropriate use of technology for exploration and problem-solving.
- Alignment of Algebra 1 with High School Assessments. The Algebra 1/Data Analysis High School Assessment does not require algebraic manipulation. Therefore, the Algebra 1 course de-emphasizes these important skills, leaving students unprepared for Algebra 2 and higher courses. The CCSS might mitigate this problem in time, but no provisions have been made for transitioning students who have not had the benefits of new curriculum K-8.
County-wide policies that impact math:
- Credit and Promotion. Middle-school students taking high-school courses are required to pass the final exam to receive credit. Extending this policy to high-school students, or even better, raising the requirement to a C or better on the final exam should improve performance on exams and in subsequent courses.
- Grading & Reporting Policy. For many years now, K-12 teachers in all content areas have had to follow the same grading policy that specifies a minimum grade on assessments of 50% and requires reassessments. These practices do not prepare students for college and have negative effects on student motivation. Allowing teachers to assign grades that truly reflect mastery of content would result in marking period grades that better correlate with final exam grades and other high-stakes tests.
- Absence Policy. Poor attendance no longer results in direct academic consequences such as loss of credit or zeroes on missed assessments. The result has been a higher rate of absenteeism in many high schools and very damaging indirect academic consequences, especially in content areas such as math. Limiting the number of absences a student can have to receive credit in a course would send a strong message that attendance affects academic performance.
Major curriculum changes are already underway, but any real improvement will take time, effort, and policy changes. As the educational experts on the front lines, teachers must be more deeply involved in decision making. When new curriculum is rolled out, it is critical that teachers receive the necessary training and support, and that a transition plan is in place for both students and teachers. Any system-wide policies that have negatively impacted student performance need to be intensely scrutinized. Our students and our community deserve nothing less.
Davis, Bradley M. Bradley_M_Davis@mcpsmd.org
Dobbs, Garrett Garrett_Dobbs@mcpsmd.org
Flowers, Jeffrey L. Jeffrey_L_Flowers@mcpsmd.org
Gesterling, Julie A. Julie_A_Gesterling@mcpsmd.org
Herndon, Kimberly R. Kimberly_R_Herndon@mcpsmd.org
Loomis, Linda L. Linda_L_Loomis@mcpsmd.org
Maloney, Janice A. Janice_A_Maloney@mcpsmd.org
Moore, Sharon M. Sharon_M_Moore@mcpsmd.org
Moulding, Laura E. Laura_E_Moulding@mcpsmd.org
Pulupa, Rene G. Rene_G_Pulupa@mcpsmd.org
Stansbury, Jack John_W_Stansbury@mcpsmd.org