Montgomery County parent issues report on math exam failures

With a new math work group meeting in Montgomery County to examine the causes of high failure rates on high school final exams, one longtime activist has produced his own 20-plus page report on the problem.

His main message: It is not all about students being advanced through math too quickly.

“The whole rap was we’re pushing kids ahead too fast, and those are the kids that are failing,” said Fred Stichnoth, 61, a Silver Spring parent who has been involved in school issues for a decade. “Well, those are not the kids who are failing.”

School district figures revealed earlier this year showed a majority of the 30,000 Montgomery County high school students enrolled in seven math courses failed their first-semester final exams. Course failure rates were far lower.

Stichnoth argues that the phenomenon of “super-acceleration” may explain some part of what’s happening but concluded that it is not the major cause.

Among other things, he highlights figures showing middle school students who are taking advanced math classes earlier fail the same exams at a much lower rate than the high school students who take them. Students in honors math courses fail finals less frequently than those in non-honors courses, he points out.

“It’s not the accelerated kids,” he says, instead suggesting that the larger issue is students from households in and near the poverty line.

His suggestions: Assign more experienced teachers to schools with higher rates of students in poverty, provide more funds to such schools and, perhaps, change school boundaries to achieve greater diversity in student populations.

These ideas might be “long shots,” he concedes.

A bond lawyer who enjoys digging into complex topics, Stichnoth is the former president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County and says he also is a believer in increasing resources to schools with larger numbers of students in poverty. His two children are graduates of Springbook High School.

The report comes as many parents wonder what to make of the failure rates in their well-regarded school system. Teachers, elected officials and experts have weighed in about what may have caused the failures and what can be done to turn the problem around.

A new math work group — appointed by Montgomery school leaders — met this week and has a series of meetings scheduled for coming months, with the goal of making recommendations in November. It also met once over the summer break.

Stichnoth e-mailed his report to math group members, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr and the Board of Education last week.

Merry Eisner, a member of the new math group, said she does not agree with Stichnoth’s assessments of a previous math work group — on which she also served — but thought the analysis of student acceleration in math contributes to the broader discussion.

In June, math teachers from Poolesville High School posted an open letter online with their analysis.

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