Math-test failures in Montgomery raise concerns about policies

Montgomery County school board members voiced alarm Tuesday about steep failure rates on last semester’s final exams in high school math courses, saying such problems go back many years and raising questions about school policies that might affect student test performance.

Board of Education member Phil Kauffman (At Large) cited a 2004 report that showed about half the county’s high school students failed Algebra 1 finals that year, highlighting what he said appears to be a persistent problem. Elected leaders met Tuesday for the first time since data became public showing that a majority of the roughly 30,000 high school students in seven math courses failed their final exams.

This year’s data showed a 62 percent failure rate for high school students taking the county’s geometry final and a 57 percent rate for those taking the Algebra 2 exam. Among those taking Algebra 1 finals, 61 percent failed. For precalculus, the failure rate was 48 percent.

Kauffman drew attention to data for another math course, one meant for top students — honors precalculus. There was a 22 percent failure rate on the January final exam. “Those should be our high fliers,” he said.

Board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) at one point described the exam results as “pitiful.”

“To me, I want to know, are our students not learning the math?” she asked. She wondered about the implications for SAT scores and college transcripts and questioned whether students have the appropriate level of academic support.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he was reviving a work group that had tackled math issues in previous years and would have it focus on the exam problem. He said Tuesday that a second group, led by two administrators, Christopher Garran and Darryl Williams, would be formed to address supporting students in the near term.

This year’s exam data became public after a Rockville High School parent obtained the numbers from a school employee and distributed the figures widely through e-mail. The Gazette first reported the failure rates April 30.

Starr said the problem does not have a single explanation. He said his goal is to have at least some changes in place by next school year to help address the failures.

He explained the lack of attention to the issue, in part, by noting that the school system has focused on course completion, not exam grades. He also mentioned county students’ successes on Advanced Placement and SAT exams and with high school graduation rates.

“Our kids do very, very well. So the idea that somehow it’s like this beautiful house that exists and you open the door and it’s termite-ridden . . . the exams don’t tell us that,” Starr said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have to fix a couple of broken pipes, but I don’t want people to get the idea that all of a sudden we’ve got this massive, widespread issue that no one has acknowledged or recognized before.”

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