The numbers have alarmed parents in the high-performing school system, where nearly 16,000 high school students in seven math courses did not pass their finals — a majority of the roughly 30,000 students taking those tests.
Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said a work group would begin meeting this summer to unravel the reasons behind the poor test results, which he said could involve issues of teaching, student support, or alignment between the curriculum and the exam.
Starr said that he did not know how long the problem has been going on and that he has requested historical data showing exam failure rates for the past five years.
“It’s certainly a concern to me that this many kids failed,” Starr said, adding that “exam failure does not mean course failure.” School officials said they did not have data on course failure but noted that two-thirds of Montgomery’s students earn a C or higher in Algebra 1 by the end of ninth grade.
The underperformance issue comes as the County Council spars with school officials over funding and whether the school system has focused enough on closing the achievement gap.
The new figures also show that 48 percent of students did not pass the pre-calculus final exam, with an additional 14 percent receiving D’s. Most starkly, 86 percent flunked finals for Bridge to Algebra 2, intended for those who need support before moving into the advanced course.
“I think the numbers raise more questions than they do answers,” said Board of Education member Michael A. Durso, a retired high school principal who said one factor may be a recent push by the school system to “super-accelerate” math students. “Obviously, something is not right.”
The failing grades came to light after Dylan Presman, PTSA president at Rockville High School, heard complaints about numerous students not passing exams and obtained data late last month from a school official he declined to name.
Presman said he found the data so “outrageous” that he posted it on his school’s e-mail group list and forwarded it to high school PTSA leaders across the county. The data was confirmed by Montgomery officials as accurate.
Parents were stunned, he added, some saying they thought that only their children had done poorly. “When people saw this data, they said, ‘Holy cow,’ ” he said. “It’s going on all over.”
School officials say the data do not tell the whole story for two of the seven math courses — Algebra 1 and honors geometry — because middle school students are heavily enrolled in them and tend to pass exams in greater numbers. When middle school and high school exam grades are combined, the overall failure rate is 30 percent for Algebra 1 and 25 percent for honors geometry.