“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.