Montgomery County’s math problem

May 26, 2013

VARIOUS EXPLANATIONS have been advanced in the wake of publicity about high failure rates of Montgomery County high school students on final math exams. The tests don’t count for much. Students just aren’t trying. They are still passing the courses. Other test results are still good.

None of these explanations is reassuring — particularly since the issue has persisted for years and, as The Post’s Donna St. George reported, may reflect a broader problem in questionable pupil performance on final exams in other subjects. School officials need to reexamine how well they are teaching math and whether there are factors at play affecting student achievement in other areas.

Data recently released by school officials showed startling numbers of students with failing or near-failing grades on the final exams administered countywide last semester. A majority of roughly 30,000 high school students taking seven math courses failed their final exams. The failure rate was 62 percent for the geometry final, 61 percent for Algebra I and 57 percent for Algebra II. Even honors precalculus, the course aimed at top students, posted a 22 percent failure rate. And data showing low-income students failing at the highest rate renewed questions about Montgomery’s ability to address the achievement gap that separates many ­low-income and minority students from their peers.

“Pitiful” was school board member Patricia O’Neill’s assessment. Superintendent Joshua P. Starr called the failure rates “unacceptably high” but cautioned against using them as the measure of overall student success. Mr. Starr points out, fairly, that Montgomery students do well on SAT and Advanced Placement tests. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that Mr. Starr, who has called for a three-year timeout on some standardized tests, implicitly shows their value with this defense: Only if students are taking national or statewide tests can parents be sure that individual counties or schools aren’t dumbing down standards.) But final test scores are supposed to reflect mastery of course material. And if all is well, why do nearly 70 percent of Montgomery County graduates who attend Montgomery College require math remedial instruction?

Concerns about the low scores date to 2004, and school officials say that efforts to address the issue — including a move to strengthened Common Core State Standards and increased teacher preparation — are underway. Some questions they will seek to answer: Are test questions out of alignment with course material? Are too many students being accelerated without a foundation in math? Is pre-final exam grading too easy? Why do some schools do better than others?

Most critical will be identifying students who are doing poorly and getting them the help they need. We are glad to see Mr. Starr’s sense of urgency in establishing work groups and pushing for recommendations that can be implemented at the beginning of the next school year.

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