Math exam failure persists in Montgomery, even as efforts are underway to help

Montgomery County high school students failed their January final exams in math at rates as high as 60 percent in key courses, according to newly released figures that point to a continuing test problem despite recent efforts to help struggling students.

More than 15,550 high school students did not pass math finals, a jarring statistic in a well­regarded district more accustomed to academic success. An additional 4,880 students received D’s on their finals. About 11,200 received an A, B or C.

The numbers are largely consistent with those that first came to public attention last spring, alarming parents and leaving school leaders scrambling to explain a failure phenomenon that had gone on quietly for years.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr created a math work group last May to examine the causes of the problem. He launched another effort in schools to identify students faring poorly and to give them more help.

“I found it really puzzling that in spite of the school action plans and making a concerted effort, there wasn’t much change from what we’ve seen previously,” said Patricia O’Neill (3rd District), board of education vice president. “I don’t know what the problem is. It leaves me scratching my head.”

Some have linked the poor exam performance to grading policies that leave some students thinking the tests don’t matter. Others suggest students have been advanced too quickly in math. Or that the curriculum doesn’t allow for deep learning. Or that students don’t study enough or know how to study for a cumulative test.

While many other factors have also been cited, the conclusions of the work group are not yet complete. The group planned to issue recommendations late last year but postponed until this month. Its findings will go to the school board June 17, said Erick J. Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.

In recent months, the district has surveyed teachers, principals and students on the issue.

“This problem has been around for a long time, and I don’t think we’re going to see easy fixes,” said board President Phil Kauffman (At Large), who noted that students may have foundational gaps in math learning that are not quickly resolved.

The new data for high school students shows that in several courses exam failure rates in January were precisely the same as the previous January’s — with Algebra 1 at 61 percent, Algebra 2 at 57 percent and precalculus at 48 percent.

Showing the most improvement was Bridge to Algebra 2, with a 78 percent failure rate compared with 86 percent last January; and Honors Geometry, with a 27 percent failure rate compared with 36 percent.

The failure rate went up in Honors Algebra 2, to 34 percent from 30 percent; it went down in Geometry, to 56 percent from 62 percent.

Most students who fail their exams do not fail their courses.

“We may have to keep going back to the drawing board before we get a handle on this,” said school board member Michael A. Durso (5th District). “It may be that this is a deeper problem than we were aware of or have a strategy for.”

Board member Christopher S. Barclay (4th District) said he sees the exam grades as part of a broader question.

“The bigger issue is: Are we teaching young people math in a way that ensures they have a solid foundation? And I think the unfortunate answer is: Not yet,” Barclay said.

While a search for answers remains underway, each of the county’s 25 high schools created an “action plan” last fall to steer extra help to students in need. Select students received tutoring, lunch-hour sessions, Saturday school and other attention.

Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools, said at the time that the idea was to be more proactive and anticipate students’ needs, “not to wait until they fail.” The effort involved a couple of thousand students districtwide.

Last week, Garran said the effort had succeeded in increasing a focus on helping students. He said it was not designed to address exam performance in particular.

“I never started off thinking the math action plans in schools were going to solve the problems we have around final exams,” he said. “The exam issue is much bigger.”

Garran credited teachers with working hard to make a difference, adding that the effort just started last semester. “It’s been a fairly short time,” he said.

Amy Watkins, a high school math teacher, said the new numbers were not surprising because the action plans were not focused on the exam in particular and because a major cause of exam failure has not been tackled: grading policies.

In Montgomery, exams are worth 25 percent of a course grade but tend to have little influence for students with consistent passing grades in their classroom work. For example, students with C’s as quarterly grades will still get a C in the semester-long course if they fail the exam.

Many students acknowledge that they consult a widely available grading chart as they decide how hard to study for their tests.

Some decide that a poor exam grade would have little effect, Watkins said, and that makes a difference in how they prepare for exams.

“Some students don’t have the motivation behind it,” she said.

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