Roughly 1 in 7 students who failed the most recent Algebra 1 final exam in Montgomery County — a test that produced high failure rates and led to a mass grade recalculation — attended special summer reteaching sessions, according to newly released schools data. Another group retook the course.
The classes went well for many who participated, but with a majority of the students not getting further instruction, school leaders are left to consider ways to manage potential gaps in learning.
Montgomery, a high-performing school district, saw its countywide Algebra 1 exam-passing rates hit a recent low point in June, when 82 percent of high schoolers failed their finals. The middle school exam failure rate was far better — 23 percent — but it was nearly double what it was a semester earlier.
School officials responded by adding 15 percentage points to every June Algebra 1 exam grade, a move they said would bring grades into line with those of previous semesters and not penalize students for problems they did not create.
The summer classes were a way to help students regain their footing in algebra.
Of the 506 students who enrolled in special reteaching sessions, 452 students, or 89 percent, passed a retest of the Algebra 1 exam. School officials said the students — mostly middle schoolers — received targeted instruction, and the individualized approach made a difference.
Another group of students — 312 in all, mostly in high school — retook the Algebra 1 second-semester course, with about 55 percent failing the exam and far fewer, 13 percent, failing the course.
More than 3,000 students who failed the exam during the school year did not participate in the summer reteaching, according to the data.
School Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said she was not surprised that some students did not participate, given that the issue arose in June, after many families had summer plans in place.
“All of this transpired at the last minute,” she said. O’Neill said the potential content deficits are troubling. “I’m concerned about kids progressing along in math. Algebra 1 is so critical as a building block. It’s a huge concern.”
School officials attributed June’s problems with Algebra 1 to lost instructional time in the spring as teachers prepared students for state exams required for graduation. They also said the curriculum was new, based on Common Core standards for the first time.
Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said most of the students who did not participate in the reteaching were high schoolers, and that they may have lacked interest because most — 81 percent — had already passed the course.
“If you pass the course, there is not as much motivation,” he said.
By comparison, he noted, middle schoolers had more at stake: For them, failing the final exam means not getting course credit, in keeping with state requirements.
Lang said there were probably other issues that also kept students from summer sessions. Some families might have made summer plans that could not be shifted or perhaps opted to have students retake the course during the school year, he said.
The district is considering several ways to address learning gaps, Lang said. One option is adding more algebra content to the end of geometry, the next math course many students take. Another possibility, he said, is to fold the material into Algebra 2.
“The Algebra 1 content is not as necessary in geometry, and so really it’s going to be more: How can we help them as they end geometry or move into Algebra 2?” he said.
More broadly, Lang said math students would get more support through a district plan to boost math performance, which Superintendent Joshua P. Starr offered in June, and professional development was expanded for algebra and geometry teachers.
Failure rates on the exams have been steep for years and came to light in spring 2013, when many parents were stunned to learn that a majority of the 30,000 high school students taking recent math finals in key courses in Montgomery failed their semester-end tests.
Starr appointed a math work group amid community concern in spring 2013 and then proposed his plans for correcting the problem at the end of the last school year.
Told of the new figures in recent days, some parents said they still had questions about long-term effects.
Heather Powers Sauter, PTSA president at Silver Spring International Middle School, said she was glad to hear about the strong exam passing rate for students who were retaught, but still has questions about whether the algebra problem is fixed.
“I still would like to hear what exactly did they learn from that experience and what can they do to prevent it next time?” she said.