Several teachers said Montgomery’s acceleration of students — placing them in higher-level classes before they master the basics — is a key element of the failure rates. Montgomery has taken steps recently to pull back on math acceleration.
“It’s depressing, but I’m optimistic we’re on the way to fixing it,” said Montgomery Blair math teacher David Stein. “We’re looking in a more thoughtful way at who we move up in math.”
Margaret Smith, whose daughter is a junior at Springbrook High School, said that some students reach a point when the gaps in their math learning are too significant. “Some of them have suffered from having shaky foundations,” Smith said. “They’ve managed to get through, and it catches up to them.”
Although the recent failure rates have alarmed parents and members of the school board, the problem goes back a long way. In 2000, the Board of Education discussed Algebra 1 exam failure rates of 64 percent. In 2004, a report showed that about half of high school students were flunking Algebra 1 final exams. In 2006, a report found that 54 percent had failing Algebra 1 final exams in high school.
In those years, high-achieving middle school students increasingly took Algebra 1, and they tended to do better on the exams. When data is combined for middle and high school students, the picture improves for two courses: Algebra 1 and Honors Geometry.
The 2013 data show that about 16,000 high school students did not pass their final exams across seven math courses — a majority of the roughly 30,000 who took the tests.
“I really believed we had taken steps to fix this problem,” said school board member Patricia O’Neill, recalling the discussion about low marks on Algebra 1 high school exams in 2000. Every principal in Montgomery should be examining the data classroom by classroom, she said.
As her second semester precalculus exam approaches, Naomi Weintraub, the sophomore at Blair, is bracing for another disappointment. In January, she recalls feeling “awesome” as she left the exam and doing a double-take as she read the report card weeks later. “I don’t know how this happened,” she remembers thinking.
A few months later, she heard about the widespread exam failure: In precalculus, 62 percent of students received D’s or E’s on January finals.
“I’m not the only one,” Naomi said. “I was losing faith in the idea that if I work really hard I will get the grades I deserve.”