Superintendent Joshua P. Starr called the exam failure rates “unacceptably high” for some courses, but described the tests as only one measure of student success. Montgomery students on average outperform the state and nation in math on the SAT, and Starr pointed out that student scores have been rising over the past five years. The average student score in Montgomery on Advanced Placement math exams also has increased.
All of this has made the final exam problem even more puzzling to some. Experts point out that AP and SAT results often track with wealth. But 90 percent of Montgomery students also pass Maryland’s state high school algebra test.
Starr has created work groups to examine issues related to the county math exam failures, including policy, curriculum alignment, professional development and instructional effectiveness. He said he would like at least some changes in place by fall.
Montgomery has been more focused on course completion than on final exam grades, Starr said. The data school officials released Friday night show recent course failure rates of 12 percent for Algebra 2 and 16 percent for geometry, far below the final exam failure rates in those courses.
Signs of math trouble also show up among Montgomery students who attend Montgomery College after graduation, with nearly 70 percent needing remedial classes before they can take college-level math, according to 2012 college figures.
Jerome Dancis, an associate professor emeritus in math at the University of Maryland who has followed math issues in Montgomery for more than a decade, said he is not surprised by the failing grades because students have long needed more of the basics — multiplication, division, percentages, decimals, exponents — and fewer calculators.
“If they are not fluent in arithmetic, then they are going to have trouble in Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Precalculus,” Dancis said.
The teachers’ take
Montgomery teachers trace the math failures to a combination of issues.
Russ Rushton, head of the math department at Walt Whitman High School, said students are savvy test-takers who target their studying efforts. “If I know it’s not going to be worth a lick, I’m not going to care too much about studying for it,” Rushton said.
He and other teachers said student absences are a factor because it does not take many missed days to leave a student seriously behind in math. One math teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said that nearly 25 percent of his students have racked up 10 or more classroom absences and that attendance for final exams is “appalling.”