Across D.C. region, final exam failures go beyond Montgomery

Montgomery County’s high schools are not the only ones in the Washington region with high failure rates on final exams in math, according to data from Washington area school districts showing failure rates of 20 percent to nearly 60 percent on some tests.

A Washington Post review of final-exam performance in 10 school districts found that more than half of high school geometry students in Anne Arundel County failed their fall semester finals, as did 36 percent of students enrolled in three math classes last year in Alexandria.

In Fairfax County schools, 22 to 25 percent of high school students in three non-honors math courses — Algebra 2, geometry and pre-calculus — did not pass finals last year. Students in the same courses at the honors level did far better, with exam failure rates of 5 to 7 percent.

Few districts in the region reported the widespread problems that have left many reeling in Montgomery, where a majority of 30,000 students enrolled in seven math courses failed math exams during the fall semester. More recently, Montgomery school data showed steep rates of final-exam failure in some biology, English and history courses.

But previously unreleased figures from six of 10 other local school systems show that exam failure is not uncommon, even if it is not widely known. Many districts do not closely track final-exam grades systemwide, The Post found. In most cases, the data provided were compiled in response to The Post’s requests.

Math failures in Montgomery County

In an era of standardized testing, the high school final exam — though still important to many — may have slipped in standing. Many school leaders said they are more focused on other measures of student success and school performance: state-mandated tests, course grades, graduation rates, Advanced Placement exam results, SAT scores.

But experts say that if the results of final exams are not collected and analyzed, larger questions are in order.

“How important are they, and if they’re not important, why are they still there?” asked Francis “Skip” Fennell, a professor of education at McDaniel College in Maryland and past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said that if exams are good tests of mastery, results can be useful in guiding teaching, assessing curricula and helping students. “I can’t imagine not wanting to look at the data,” Pianta said. “If no one’s looking at those exam scores, that’s information that’s not being used, and that’s too bad.”

In Montgomery, high failure rates on high school exams go back a number of years, but the issue came to light most recently when Rockville PTSA President Dylan Presman obtained figures and e-mailed them widely in late April. Finals count for 25 percent of a course grade in Montgomery schools.

Since the disclosure of widespread failures, parents, teachers and elected officials have raised concerns about the county’s grading policies, exam content, teaching and student placement. Two study groups are forming to look into the problem, starting this summer.

One of the many questions raised has been: Does the problem extend beyond Montgomery?

From the data school systems provided — some limited to two or three courses — the problem appeared most similar in Anne Arundel County, where numbers showed the highest exam failure rates in geometry. Fifty-six percent of high school students failed the fall-semester final exam, and in Algebra 2, 59 percent flunked.

“Certainly, that’s obviously concerning,” said Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier, adding that the numbers are not a surprise in his district. “It’s data that we have and we pay attention to.”

As in Montgomery, students in honors-level courses did better. Even so, in Anne Arundel, nearly one in three high school students failed such exams in geometry and Algebra 2. Course failure rates were lower, ranging from 4 to ­21 percent across seven math courses.

According to school system data, 25 percent of Calvert County high school students taking pre-calculus last year failed the final, as did 42 percent of those enrolled in Algebra 3, a class for students who need extra support.

In Arlington County, 31 percent of high school students taking a countywide Algebra 1 final exam last year failed, according to district data.

Arlington allows teachers great leeway in choosing whether to give exams, said Constance Skelton, assistant superintendent for instruction. Because most finals vary widely, the results are not often analyzed. “It’s kind of apples and oranges, some of it,” she said.

Experts say that failure rates should not be compared from one school district to another, because exams can be very different — some easy, some difficult — and policies about grading and other issues add even more variability.

In some districts, school leaders said finals are teacher-created and differ from one high school to the next, setting them apart from the uniform countywide finals Montgomery uses.

“There’s not a systemwide final exam, so it does not have that kind of meaning,” said Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre.

The exams are regarded similarly in Prince William County, said spokesman Phil Kavits, noting that results are examined school by school because tests vary. Prince William’s data for geometry students showed a combined failure rate for both honors and non-honors courses of about 24 percent last year, he said.

Kristen Amundson, senior vice president at the Education Sector think tank and former chairman of Fairfax’s school board, said each district should take careful note of its own numbers. “You cannot compare them across district lines, but people in [all] systems ignore them at their peril,” she said. “If these kids are failing the final, how prepared are they for the next course?”

Amundson said she believes that Fairfax and Montgomery counties — the largest school systems in Virginia and Maryland, respectively — face similar underlying issues, even if rates vary. In both counties, Amundson pointed out, large percentages of students need remedial math before they can take college-level classes at community colleges.

According to college figures, 75 percent of Fairfax graduates attending Northern Virginia Community College need remedial math courses, as do nearly 70 percent of Montgomery graduates attending Montgomery College.

“Nobody thinks this is Montgomery only,” Amundson said.

In Montgomery, the move to countywide exams came more than a decade ago in order to create consistency in assessments and expectations from school to school, said Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.

Noel Klimenko, Fairfax’s coordinator of instruction and school support for grades seven to 12, said final exams are most valuable at the classroom and student level. “We don’t have any indication that there is a performance problem,” she said. “I think kids study for their final exams. They prepare.”

School districts that did not, or said they could not, provide data on final exam grades included those of Howard, Loudoun and Prince George’s counties and the District’s public schools. In Prince George’s, finals are not countywide and no data are collected, officials said.

Prince George’s chief academic officer, A. Duane Arbogast, said it is difficult to create an exam that is a “true measure of what you want that kid to learn and value.”

Most exams don’t meet that high mark, he said. “If the final exam is the application of all the skills, like a capstone project, I think it would be important,” Arbogast said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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