Montgomery County students lost ground in algebra and showed no improvement or lagged slightly on five other key measures of math and reading performance, with racial and ethnic achievement gaps remaining wide, according to data for the most recent school year.
Several leaders in Maryland’s largest school district said the numbers are alarming, with some pointing in particular to data on students completing Algebra 1 with a C or higher by the end of eighth grade: That number saw a drop of six percentage points, to 50 percent, in just a year.
The algebra data also showed increases in the achievement gap, a longtime concern in Montgomery. Overall, 75 percent of Asian students and 69 percent of white students made the Algebra 1 benchmark, while just 30 percent of black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students did.
“I think it’s really troubling,” said Patricia O’Neill, president of the county Board of Education. She called the algebra numbers “shockingly bad” and noted that successful algebra completion paves the way for math and science courses at the high school level.
Board member Christopher Barclay (4th District) said he found the algebra numbers for black and Hispanic students deplorable. “That cannot continue,” he said. “There is no quick fix, but the numbers have to be trending constantly to the positive.”
Leaders in the high-performing school system said the data — on elementary and middle school milestones — has spurred improvement efforts. Some cited the release of the numbers itself as a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s positive that we are being much more candid about progress — or a lack of it — than in the past,” said Michael A. Durso, vice president of the board. “Now comes the challenge of what do we do to address that and get back to a place where we should be. I think in the long run it’s healthy, and in the short run it’s going to be a wake-up call.”
The data — for grades three, five and eight — showed that county students fell short of district-created targets in nine of the milestone categories. On six measures, numbers were similar to or down from a year earlier, and on three measures numbers inched up.
Detailed figures about race, ethnicity, poverty, English proficiency and special education status showed achievement gaps widened on more than half of 46 data points across the nine milestones.
Several school board members voiced concern about downward trends and gaps in reading performance, which is critical to student success.
In the third grade, 74.6 percent of students scored proficient in reading, down from 75.2 percent last year and short of the district’s goal of 78 percent. In a similar reading indicator for the eighth grade, 81.5 percent scored proficient, down from 82.9 percent last year. The target was 86 percent.
School district leaders say they have created “instructional core teams” that examine data closely and collaborate across district offices and schools to identify best practices and develop action plans to boost performance and narrow the achievement gap. At the school board’s most recent meeting, educators described the work at one middle school that struggled with algebra; they say they are identifying schools that need the most intensive support.
The new data came less than five months after the resignation of former superintendent Joshua P. Starr, who led the 154,000-student district until he stepped down in February amid reports he did not have enough board support for a new contract.
Though board members never gave detailed reasons for Starr’s departure, people close to the deliberations have told The Washington Post that some on the board felt Starr had not developed or communicated successful strategies for reducing the achievement gap and had not provided a coherent vision for the system’s principals.
Starr could not be reached for comment on the new data by e-mail late Friday or through a message relayed by the school system. The board’s search for a new superintendent in the spring was unsuccessful; it will resume in the coming school year.
Several board members said the district did not give enough attention to data on student progress during the past several years.
“These numbers make it clear a change in direction was needed,” said Barclay, referring to the district’s leadership and Starr’s departure. “What became clear to me was that our strategies and our changes and our focus were not in the right place in the last few years.”
O’Neill said she appreciated a renewed focus on the numbers and attributed a lack of close attention to a weariness created by the testing pressures of the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which Congress is trying to rewrite.
“I don’t know that we stayed as focused on the data as we once were,” she said. “It’s wonderful to focus on social and emotional learning, but we’re ultimately accountable for academic results.”
Such numbers bear on efforts to close the achievement gap, she said. “I totally believe that what gets measured gets done,” she said. “You must measure the data and plan based on the data.”
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski (2nd District) said she was disappointed in the numbers but voiced support for efforts being made by the district’s top leadership. “I feel very comfortable that we are making the right changes,” she said.
Much of the new data, described as preliminary, is based on Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, which Montgomery is using to gauge student progress until it has results from PARCC tests, which are aligned with the Common Core State Standards.
The district’s chief academic officer, Maria V. Navarro, said she sees some areas of improvement in the data — including a few gaps that narrowed for black and Hispanic students — and many areas of continuing concern. “We look at this data cautiously and know there is still a lot of work to do,” she said.
Among milestones that showed a positive trend were grade five math and reading. For example, 81 percent of fifth grade students scored proficient in math, compared with 80.2 percent a year earlier. Still, the district’s target was 83 percent.
Not everyone found the new numbers alarming. Board member Judith Docca (1st District) said the achievement gap has been a great concern for many years and the numbers might partly reflect the district’s rising number of students who need academic or language support, or Common Core-driven curriculum changes.
She said the new efforts will be helpful. “They are planning to do a tighter job of monitoring in a more organized way,” she said.