Many teachers blame students’ study habits for math exam failures in Montgomery

Many Montgomery County teachers blame student study habits for the high failure rates on math exams, according to a survey that also revealed educators’ concerns about grading policies that make it possible to fail a final exam but still pass a course.

As county schools officials continue to delve into the causes of students failing some math finals at a rate of more than 50 percent, teachers say that many students choose to skimp on exam preparation and don’t know how to prepare for a test that covers material that spans several months.

“Mandate one week of review, not one day of review,” one teacher suggested.

“There is NO CONSEQUENCE for FAILING the exam,” another wrote.

Teachers have not spoken out publicly in great numbers since the widespread failure problems came to light in the spring. But a 38-page summary of survey results — including about 400 comments — that was obtained by The Washington Post gives a view from inside the classroom.

The survey was conducted as one of many ways to unravel a phenomenon that has alarmed parents and left administrators scrambling: Last school year, a majority of high school students in key Montgomery math courses failed semester-end final exams.

A district-appointed study group has been meeting since July to get to the bottom of the problem, and the survey was part of that effort. More than 600 middle school and high school math teachers were invited to participate, and 226 have done so.

Members of the math work group have been asked not to discuss their work publicly until it is completed. The document quotes numerous Montgomery teachers but does not include their names or other identifying information.

Asked to cite three causes of exam failure, 27 percent of the teachers who responded said students choose not to put in an adequate amount of preparation; 18 percent said students don’t know how to prepare for a cumulative test; and 11 percent said class grades do not reflect mastery of content, which causes students to overestimate their level of preparation.

Twelve percent of teachers cited grading practices, a theme of many teacher comments.

“Students are too aware of the fact that they can FAIL the semester exam and still pass the class,” one teacher wrote.

“Students come to the exam with high averages and feel that a mediocre score will not knock them down a grade,” another said.

Montgomery’s final exams are worth 25 percent of a course’s grade, but the exam holds little sway for students with consistent grades for each quarter. For example, a student with C’s in each of two quarters could fail the exam but still walk away with a C in the semester course.

Schools officials declined to discuss the survey in detail, saying the district’s study group will present all of its findings at once. A report is expected in March, officials said.

Patricia O’Neill, vice president of Montgomery’s Board of Education, said she is looking forward to recommendations from the group. “Certainly, we know now there are some issues with the final exams, and it begs the question of whether we need to look at the whole grading policy, revisit it,” she said.

According to the most recent data, 71 percent of high school students failed geometry exams in June, and 68 percent flunked Algebra 1 finals. Exam failure rates for honors-level math courses were lower but still significant: 32 percent for geometry and 28 percent for Algebra 2.

When the exam failures came to public attention, many parents suggested that the math finals might be misaligned with the curriculum.

In the survey, relatively few teachers identified that as a cause: Two percent said the exam was not aligned with the written curriculum.

“It’s not the exams,” one teacher wrote. “It’s the grading policy.”

Some teachers said students lacked a deep understanding and were pushed through math too quickly.

“Students were accelerated too soon in lower level mathematics,” one wrote.

“This problem will not go away until this generation graduates,” one said.

“Stop social promotion and over-acceleration,” said another.

Others critiqued the pace and breadth of math courses.

“The curriculum moves way too fast and too many objectives have to be taught for the students to truly master them,” one teacher wrote.

Teachers gave multiple suggestions for grading policies.

“Make the test count one-third of [the course’s] grade, so students take it seriously,” one wrote.

“Require the students [to] pass the exam to get credit in the class,” said another.

“Grade the quarters and the final using percentages, so that a student who gets a 10 percent on the final would have their grade drop significantly,” another teacher wrote.

Some teachers also suggested changes in the exam.

“Make the test easier! It covers a LOT of material and students have 6 other classes to worry about,” one wrote. “This is not the time to introduce ‘clever’ questions or to expect students to remember all of the nuances of each topic.”

Another advised: “Make it less about reading and more about the math. Students are being tested on how well they read and struggling students, as well as [English for Speakers of Other Languages] students, do not do well because of their reading.”

Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the survey’s overarching themes — about student studying and grading policies — reflect what he has heard from district teachers.

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