For another semester, Montgomery County high school students flunked their final exams in math courses in startlingly high numbers, according to new figures that show failure rates of 71 percent for Geometry and 68 percent for Algebra 1.

The numbers add to a phenomenon that goes back more than five years and came to widespread public attention this spring, setting off a wave of concern among parents as well as elected officials in the high-performing school system.

The new figures, for exams given in June, show that failure rates worsened in Algebra 1 and Geometry; improved in Precalculus and Bridge to Algebra 2; and stayed fairly even in Algebra 2, Honors Precalculus, Honors Algebra 2 and Honors Geometry.

Overall, 45 percent of high school students in eight math courses failed their June finals — about 14,000 students out of roughly 31,000 enrolled.

Exactly what explains steep failure rates for exam-takers has been an issue of debate in recent months.

Math failures in Montgomery County.

In a memo to the school board, School Superintendent Joshua P. Starr released a preliminary figure on test-skipping: As many as 500 students were no-shows for the Algebra 1 exam in June, accounting for one-sixth of the 2,912 students who failed the test.

Starr said student motivation was one of a half-dozen issues under study as a newly created math work group seeks to understand the failure problem and suggest ways to turn it around. Other possible causes cited include alignment between the curriculum and the exam, school system practices and policies, and the “cognitive demands” of the exam.

For some, the new figures underscored the problem’s importance.

“The test scores make it clear to me that we have plenty of work to do,” said Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay, who said he is concerned about math instruction and opportunities for students to show “they understand it and can apply it.”

Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill said she found the scores disappointing and saw them as an indication that “our high-achieving students are doing pretty well, and our lower-achieving kids are doing terrible.”

“Kids not showing up for the final exam is a real problem,” O’Neill added.

She raised the possibility of creating a requirement that the exam be taken, or even passed. “I think that’s a question that has to be out there,” she said.

Some said they had hoped that the increased visibility of the issue in recent months would affect students’ performance in June.

Arthur L. Williams, chairman of the 1977-II Action Group in Montgomery County, which focuses on bridging the achievement gap, said he would have expected slight improvement across the board, or at least no change.

“I would expect better results, not worse results,” said Williams, who also belongs to the newly formed math work group.

The new results show that the failure rate on finals in Geometry spiked to 71 percent, compared with 62 percent in the previous semester, and that high school Algebra 1 also saw an uptick, with 68 percent not passing, compared with the previous semester’s to 61 percent.

There were improvements, too: In Pre-calculus, 37 percent of students failed the June final, compared with 48 percent for the fall semester. Similarly, 32 percent flunked the Honors Geometry exam for spring, better than the 36 percent failure rate for the fall exam.

Plans are being developed at each high school to help support students struggling in math, starting this fall, school officials said.

Across the system, the course-failure rate was far lower.

For example, 24 percent of students failed the Honors Pre-
calculus exam, but only 2 percent failed the course. Other course-failure rates ranged from 4 percent to 20 percent.

For many students, the final exam comes when semester grades are firmly set after two quarters of day-to-day classroom work. The exam is worth 25 percent of the course grade — a significant percentage but in many cases not enough to sway it drastically.

Starr pointed out that middle school students fared better: 7 to 10 percent failed the Algebra 1 and Honors Geometry exams. Middle school students taking high school math courses tend to be high achievers.

The math work group, which began meeting this week, is to make recommendations to school leaders by late December so that changes can be made by the exam period of fall of 2014. The group includes 17 school
system employees — principals, teachers, administrators — and four designees from parent and community organizations.

The figures that first stirred interest in exam grades came from the fall semester, when a majority of 30,000 high school students in seven different math courses flunked their finals. For the spring-semester exam, the failure rate across the same seven courses was 47 percent.

Many parents and educators say the issue is complex and may vary from school to school. “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer,” said parent Laurie Halverson of Potomac. “Each school has their own unique issues.”