5-year string of high failure rates on Montgomery math finals

Montgomery County high school students have been failing their final exams in math at high rates for five years, according to data released Friday night by school officials.

The new figures are similar to those released several weeks ago for January’s exams, which showed high failure rates across seven high school math courses — with a majority of the 30,000 Montgomery students who took the tests flunking.

But the five years of information released Friday includes data about individual schools and tells what percentage of high school students in the county failed their math courses, as well as the percentage that failed the finals.

In geometry, for instance, the countywide failure rate was 62 percent on the final in January and 16 percent for the course. In Algebra 2, the failure rate was 57 percent on the exam and 12 percent for the course. The test counts for 25 percent of the course grade.

The data highlighted disparities between schools and across racial and income categories. At Wheaton High School, for example, 97 percent of students who took the Algebra 2 exam failed. At Wootton High School, 20 percent failed the test.

The new data came amid increasing alarm about math instruction in the highly regarded school system. Parents and educators have expressed growing concern about the widespread exam failures and have asked why the problem was not discussed before.

School Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said, in a statement issued with the data, that the new numbers make it clear that “failure rates on some high school mathematics final exams are unacceptably high and have been so for a number of years.”

Starr expressed concern about performance gaps by race, disability and income. On recent final exams in precalculus, for example, 48 percent of students overall failed. But among African American students, the failure rate was 67 percent, and among Hispanics it was 64 percent.

“This is something that must be addressed and, I promise, will be addressed,” Starr said in the statement.

Test score disparities by school were sometimes stark.

Wheaton and Paint Branch high schools had geometry exam failure rates of more than 80 percent, for instance. But Walt Whitman’s was 25 percent, and Winston Churchill’s was 17 percent. At Albert Einstein, one of every three geometry students failed the course.

Starr had already announced that two work groups would tackle issues related to exam failure, including such matters as policy, curriculum alignment, professional development and instructional effectiveness.

Starr said the exam data do “not tell the whole story” of student performance in math. He said county students continue to do well on national exams such as the SAT, with their math scores rising over the past five years. He said the new data should “help us ask better questions” about what changes are needed and help identify students who need help.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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