Montgomery School Board probes efforts to turn around math exam failure

September 24, 2013

School board members in Montgomery County posed questions Monday about two new district efforts to improve performance on high school math exams, asking about plans to do additional student surveys, help individual students and fix underlying problems.

The spotlight on math in Montgomery follows concern about steep failure rates on math final exams in the high-performing school system. In geometry, for example, more than 70 percent of high school students did not pass the most recent final, in June.

Figures that became public in spring showed that a majority of 30,000 high school students taking seven math courses failed the end-of-semester exam in January. The final is a countywide test, the same from school to school.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has launched two efforts to turn the failure around. One centers on a school-by-school action plan to support struggling students. The other focuses on causes of exam failure, being probed by a math work group.

Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, told board members Monday that the work group’s efforts may extend longer than expected. The group was aiming for recommendations by early November.

Lang also said student focus groups are planned, but not a districtwide student survey.

Board of Education Member Michael Durso had asked about the surveys, noting that one had been done at Rockville High in June.

The Rockville survey showed slightly more than half of 600 students said they had studied an hour or less for finals. More than a quarter of students studied two to four hours, and 11 percent studied five or more hours for the biggest test of the semester.

At the Monday board session, designated as an update on math efforts, a range of topics came up — from grading policies to curriculum changes to student interventions.

Christopher Garran, associate superintendent of high schools, reported that school-by-school action plans were being established across the district, as a way to pinpoint and help students in need.

Board of Education Vice President Philip Kauffman said he had reviewed school board minutes from 2000 and found an exam failure rate of 64 percent --and similar discussion about potential causes.

“A lot of things that we’re talking about now were things that were talked about by the board back in 2000,” he said. “I’m sure there were committees established and work groups formed and action teams and consultants. ”

He asked whether the problem would really be solved — and whether exam grades would improve.

“I don’t think we’re going to see any major changes in January and probably not by the end of the year,” Lang told the school board. “But I think as a school district we need to keep looking at this issue and striving to find out why this continues to be an issue, and so we are going to look at it again and we’re going try to look at it from different angles and see . . .what we find to get at the root cause.”

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