Large percentages of Montgomery students fail final exams in English, history and biology

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 new school data that add to questions about student performance in the well-regarded school district.

The figures come at a time of widespread concern about failing and near-failing grades on math exams in Montgomery. Last semester, a majority of the 30,000 high school students taking seven countywide math exams failed the end-of-semester tests.

The new information gives the exam-failure problem another dimension, showing that it extends to non-math courses, although the failure rates are not as high. For example, more than 50 percent of students failed a modern world history exam typically taken by 11th-graders. The failure rates were similar for exams in U.S. history, at 42 percent, and biology, at 40 percent.

In the same three courses, students fared much better at the honors level, with failure rates of 13 percent on the final exams for each.

“It’s troubling,” said Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). “It raises tons of questions. It is clearly not just a math problem.”


Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has said that two work groups will be created to investigate poor exam performance in math and determine how best to help students. Montgomery’s focus has long been course completion, he said, not exam grades.

Math data show that far more students pass courses than exams. In geometry, for instance, 62 percent failed the exam in January, but 16 percent failed the course. The exam grade accounts for 25 percent of the course grade.

High rates of math failure go back at least five years, according to data released this month. In Montgomery, such exams are countywide tests, the same from school to school.

School board member Phil Kauffman (At Large) said Friday that the figures for other subjects are “just one more piece in the puzzle,” and he expressed confidence that the superintendent’s work groups would “look at all of this and figure out what can be done.”

Kauffman said he was concerned that many high school students “may not have all the tools they need” to prepare for a semester exam.

The new numbers have begun to increase concern among parents, and they underscore questions about possible causes of exam failure: Is teaching not in line with the tests? Do grading policies play a role? Have students been getting the support they need?

Some Montgomery students say they try hard on exams and are surprised when they score poorly. Others say their grades are often settled by the time they face final exams, so they don’t go all out.

The new numbers show that 25 percent of students taking non-honors government courses failed the exams. In English, the steepest exam failure rates were among 10th- and 11th-graders in non-honors courses. About one in three failed the end-of-semester tests.

All told, nearly 13,000 exams received failing grades in 16 English, history, government and biology courses — or nearly 20 percent of about 68,000 given.

“From the numbers, it seems like there are similar — if not quite so intense — problems in other [non-math] exams,” said Dylan Presman, president of the Rockville High School PTSA, who raised the issue in April, e-mailing data he had acquired to PTSA leaders across the county.

Presman urged Montgomery school leaders to “expand their thinking on this issue. It’s not just about math — there’s something broader going on,” he said. “When you’re talking about half a group failing, there’s something seriously wrong.”

He added: “Montgomery County is one of the best school districts in the country — and what does that mean if everybody’s failing?”

Joyce Gardner, another Rockville parent, said that she considers the new data release a good sign and that she hopes the work groups will root out underlying problems. “I think that they’re going to examine all of these grades to see what’s going on,” she said.

School officials were not available by phone Friday, but Erick J. Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said in an e-mail that the data on exam failures allow “you to ask questions about teaching and learning.”

Lang pointed out that honors-level students did better on exams than other students. In honors English classes, exam failure rates were 3 to 8 percent. The new data do not reflect student performance in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, which do not use county exams.

Lang said that the mission of the work groups remains math-focused but that some findings may apply to other subject areas. He said it is too early to draw conclusions from the data “because of the varied factors contributing to student exam scores.”

It is not clear how far back failing grades go in non-math courses. Lang said he did not know.

Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who studies student achievement, said the math exam data should not be compared directly with data for other disciplines. “What it means to know history is different than what it means to know math,” he said.

But Loveless said the new numbers broaden the concern.

“These are large failure rates,” he said. “They need to look at all of these tests — what purpose they serve and [whether] the tests represent an assessment of the content teachers are teaching in their courses.”

David Naimon — who was the school board’s first student member, in the late 1970s, and is following the failure issue now as a Montgomery parent — said the numbers suggest that math exams are a problem and that the county may not be doing well by non-honors students in other courses.

“If I was a member of the school board today, I would be very concerned about how we are educating our grade-level kids,” he said. The data suggest “the possibility that students are not learning the material the school system thinks is required to master the course.”

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