Montgomery County’s high school students failed their most recent final exams in key math classes at rates similar to previous semesters, according to new data that shows there has been little progress in boosting scores.
The poor results continue to raise questions in the high-performing district about math learning, grading policies and the value of the tests.
The new figures show that 65 percent of high school students taking Algebra 1 failed the semester’s final exam in January, as did 62 percent of those in geometry, 63 percent in Algebra 2 and 47 percent in precalculus. The failure rates were slightly higher — and in one case slightly lower — than those from the previous January.
“I would have thought there would have been some level of improvement,” said Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill. “There have been some good efforts, but clearly, they haven’t worked.”
The continuing exam failure comes about 18 months after Montgomery high schools created math action plans to target struggling students and nine months after a five-point plan was announced by then-Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, who resigned last month amid faltering support from the school board.
O’Neill said the persistence of the problem points to the need for a more far-reaching discussion. “I think we need to come to grips with, ‘Do we continue with countywide final exams in general, and what weight do we give to final exams?’ ” she said.
In all, more than 15,000 high school students in Montgomery failed a math final in January. For those in honors precalculus and honors geometry, exam failure rates improved slightly, to 18 percent and 25 percent respectively, the data showed.
School officials say failure rates have inched up and down over the years, and they are more focused on course completion and improving student learning and performance in each classroom, from elementary grades on up. They continue to work on Starr’s plan and have expanded professional development for teachers, they say.
“This wasn’t an issue that appeared overnight, and it isn’t going to be solved quickly,” said Erick Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, who noted that no single cause of the problem has been identified.
“Our focus is the long-term instructional program and what’s happening in the classroom,” he said.
Montgomery’s steep exam failure rates came to public light two years ago, when figures showed that of the 30,000 high school students taking the biggest test of the semester in core math classes, more than half failed.
The issue hit a low point in June: Failure rates were so high for Algebra 1 exams that school officials added 15 percentage points to all exam grades in that course, recalculated final grades and reprinted report cards.
The figures for the most recent Algebra 1 exams — the first finals since that time — were in line with previous years. The district did not add percentage points to January final exam grades, Lang said.
Still, nearly 2 out of 3 high school students did not pass their Algebra 1 finals. Middle schoolers who were taking the high school classes — and who are often higher achievers — had an Algebra 1 exam failure rate of 15 percent.
Catalina Schrader, a Silver Spring parent, said she would like to see the district take a new approach at this point. “They are not getting to the root of the problem with however they are trying to fix it,” she said.
Schrader added that students are left “to pick up the pieces because they are the ones who continue to suffer with whatever their grade-point averages are and whatever their learning gaps have been.”
In Montgomery, countywide final exams account for 25 percent of course grades, and most students pass math courses.
Educators have pointed out that grading policies do not encourage all students to take the exam seriously. A student who earns C’s in both grading periods, for example, could fail the final but still earn a C in the class.
But few think that phenomenon fully explains the problem.
“It seems to be a problem still in search of a solution,” said Michael A. Durso (5th District), the board’s vice president. “With those numbers, it’s difficult not to be concerned.”
Starr’s improvement plan, presented in June, included measures to boost math expertise at the elementary school level, reconsider policies about how students progress through math, add new diagnostic tools to help support struggling students, increase professional development, and start an online library of teacher and student resources.
Starr noted that black, Latino and special education students were disproportionately affected.
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski (2nd District) said she was hoping to see more progress. “I absolutely continue to be concerned and think it’s critical to take a hard look at this and do what we can to fix it,” she said.
Merry Eisner-Heidorn, a parent and member of the district’s recent math work group, described the new numbers as troubling: “We’re right back to where we were, with high failure rates and everyone saying that it doesn’t matter because they pass the course.”
She questioned what the failure rates suggest about how students will do on the new statewide PARCC tests recently administered. “I’m worried we have not found a good solution to supporting students through summative assessments,” she said.
O’Neill, the board president, said she and board member Philip Kauffman (At Large) wrote a letter asking Larry A. Bowers, interim superintendent, whether district policy would allow students to forgo county finals in June for five courses, including two in math, that require state tests such as the HSA or the PARCC. “I do worry about test fatigue,” she said.
Schools spokesman Dana Tofig said that Bowers’s office was working on a reply, but he said it would not be practical to change grading policies so close to the year’s end. The idea will be considered for the next school year, he said.