Failure rates in Montgomery spur rethinking about final exams

That yearly rite of June — final exams — recently ended in Montgomery County’s high schools, and report cards bearing test grades began arriving in the mail last week.

School officials say they have not yet compiled the county’s June exam data, meaning it will take some time to learn how students as a group performed on finals in Montgomery — an issue of heightened concern amid a recent outcry about the county’s high exam-failure rates, particularly in math.

But as summer begins, two work groups are forming to look into the problem, which has already touched off a wave of rethinking about exam content, classroom teaching and grading practices.

One school board member suggests the county’s math teachers be surveyed, as a starting point. Another recalls a proposal some years ago for more heavily weighted exams — perhaps having them count for 30 percent of the course grade, rather than the 25 percent they constitute now.

“Maybe it’s time to look at that again,” Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill (3rd District) said. “I think it’s an open question.”

Teachers from Poolesville High School recently weighed in online with an open letter to county parents and the school board that described the underlying trouble as “policies that have been in place for many years and are having a cumulative effect.”

The letter said students were moved ahead in math too quickly as part of an acceleration effort that left students with “accumulated gaps in their understanding.” It cited problems in how honors-level courses are approached and “a culture of failure” in non-honors classes. It talked about overuse of calculators in the early grades.

Several suggestions in the letter focused on grading policies, including a proposed requirement that students pass final exams to receive course credit. Better yet, students could be required to earn a C or higher on the exam, the 11 teachers wrote.

The teachers also challenged policies that affect day-to-day grading in the classroom, including a cap of 50 percent for the lowest failing grade in many circumstances and the policy of allowing retakes on some assessments.

In the letter, the Poolesville teachers contend that such practices do not prepare students for college and have “negative effects on student motivation.”

But not everyone agrees with the teachers’ proposals or about what is causing exam failure in the first place.

Montgomery school data show a majority of 30,000 students enrolled in seven math courses failed final exams in the fall semester. High rates of exam failure go back at least five years in Montgomery and extend to several other subjects, school figures indicate.

Dylan Presman, PTSA president of Rockville High School and the person who brought the issue to public attention in late April, said several of the Poolesville teachers’ ideas appear to start with the assumption that students don’t take exams seriously, which is not what he sees.

Although some strategically decide not to study for exams because their course grades likely will not be swayed much by an exam score, Presman contends it is “absurd” to suggest that this phenomenon explains failure rates of 50 to 60 percent.

Many students do their best, he said. “I believe students are failing because there is a systemic issue, a problem with the exams,” Presman said. The Poolesville ideas could penalize students further, he said, the “complete opposite” of what is needed.

Some found the letter more on target.

“I don’t think I disagree with any of it,” Board of Education member Michael A. Durso (5th District) said. “I thought it was pretty insightful, and I was kind of pleased that they as a department came forward.”

Durso has suggested a countywide survey of Montgomery’s math teachers. More than 370 work at the high school level.

At Walt Whitman High School, Russ Rushton, head of the math department, says some teachers have floated the idea of using percentage grades for each quarter and the exam, rather than traditional letter grades.

“The thing is, about any grading system, there are pros and cons to any of it,” Rushton said. He said he does not support increasing the weight of exams without knowing more about the strength of the tests.

Students, too, have various views.

Some say they would not mind seeing final exams eliminated. But Will Shropshire, 16, a rising junior at Rockville High School, said he thinks finals are important. “It gets you ready for college,” he said.

Failing final exams could have significant fallout.

In middle school, students who take high school math classes — Algebra 1 or Honors Geometry, for example — must pass the high school exam to receive credit for the course, as is required by the state.

In high school, passing the exam is not required. But when students fail exams, some see their course grades dip, which affects grade-point averages and, potentially, college applications.

Other students are less affected. For example, a high school student who earned C’s for a semester’s two quarters will typically get a C in the course, unless he pulls an A on the final exam. Many consult an online table of grading scenarios as they prepare for finals, a chart that indicates many students might not have a reason to care much about them.

Montgomery officials said the two work groups — whose members have not yet been announced — will begin meeting this summer. One group will use data to identify students who need intervention as the fall semester starts.

The other group, which will include parents and community leaders, will look at the problem in a “long-range” way and might meet throughout next school year.

Durso, the school board member, said spotting problems in education is always easier than finding solutions. “I think before the dust settles — if the dust ever does settle — we’re going to have a lot of ideas out there,” he said.

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