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.