Schools' Math Scores Raise New Concerns

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Upon the debut of the Maryland School Assessments in 2003, Montgomery County ranked second in the state in math, with 67 percent of students passing tests in elementary and middle school. This year, the county ranks 11th.

The notion that math instruction might be slipping has made the rounds among parent leaders since the release of 2008 test results this month. The Parents Coalition of Montgomery County, a forum for parent activists who oppose school officials on many matters, went so far as to issue a news release last week stating that the latest results "should sound an alarm for our local education system" and pledging to sponsor a forum on the topic in the fall.

As with so many data points, the county's relative success or failure in math depends largely on perspective.

Performance by the county's students on the MSA, the test used to gauge student proficiency under the No Child Left Behind Act, has risen steadily in reading and math. The pass rate in math has gone up 15 points, from 67 percent in 2003 to 82 percent in 2008. The reading pass rate has climbed 17 points, from 71 percent to 88 percent.

Montgomery's ranking relative to other counties is unchanged in reading: sixth in 2003, sixth in 2008. Three counties with minimal poverty, Howard, Carroll and Calvert, have had the top pass rates both years.

Montgomery has slipped in math performance because several other counties have raised their scores at a slightly faster rate. "Slightly" is the operative term here: Four points separate Montgomery from Carroll County, No. 2 in math performance this year. A dozen counties are bunched together in math proficiency, with pass rates between 80 and 88 percent.

Nonetheless, many parents are accustomed to thinking of Montgomery as a pedagogical leader and consider it unseemly for the county to rank 11th in anything.

"It hardly seems possible that MCPS could have slipped that badly when the whole focus of the enterprise is to look good on the MSA," wrote John Hoven, a longtime advocate of math instruction and gifted education in the county, in an e-mail.

Stacy Scott, an associate superintendent of Montgomery schools, said the school system has focused more on its progress than on comparisons with neighboring districts, none of which quite resembles Montgomery in demographic terms.

"We don't typically compare ourselves against our local associates. That's not where we expend most of our energy," he said.

The Montgomery school system has probably the most aggressive program of math acceleration in the state, with nearly one-quarter of students studying high school Algebra I two years ahead, in seventh grade. The county produces a disproportionate share of honorees in the nation's top math contest, the United States of America Mathematics Olympiad.

The county also has its share of disadvantaged students. Montgomery has the largest proportion of students with limited English proficiency, 12 percent, of any school system in Maryland. The county ranks 14th poorest in the share of students qualifying for meal subsidies by virtue of low family income, 27 percent. Both measures have risen since 2003.

Because of its diversity, the Montgomery school system tends to rank lower on measures, such as MSA, that account for the entire student population. Another such measure is Maryland's High School Assessments, the battery of exit exams that all graduating students must pass by 2009. Montgomery ranks sixth among school systems for its HSA pass rate (81 percent across the four exams), trailing a group of smaller suburban and rural systems.

The county fares better on more selective measures. On the SAT, a test for the college-bound, Montgomery boasts one of the highest composite scores in the region: 1624 of a possible 2400 points, as of 2007. On the 2008 Challenge Index, a measure of college-level testing devised by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews, the top seven high schools in Maryland are in Montgomery (Richard Montgomery, Wootton, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walt Whitman, Walter Johnson, Winston Churchill and Montgomery Blair).

Parents might be heartened to know that Montgomery fares better in the MSA when compared with other counties on a more selective measure, the share of students rated advanced, the highest of three performance levels on the test. Students who take the test are rated advanced, proficient or basic; the first two groups are considered proficient. Many educators regard mere proficiency as a low standard.

Montgomery ranked sixth among counties in math and fourth in reading for students rated advanced on the statewide test, which was administered in grades 3 to 8 in the spring. Critics will note, of course, that the county ranked second in the state on this measure in 2003.

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