As Maryland’s largest school district rethinks its long practice of giving final exams, new data show that steep exam failure rates persist in math, with three out of four high school students flunking the June test in Algebra 1.
Montgomery County school officials say the results reflect a long-standing problem with math exam performance but show an improvement in Algebra 1 from last year, when outcomes were so poor that the district added 15 percentage points to all semester exam grades in that course.
Extra points were not added this year, said Erick Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs. He said teachers had professional development and a second year’s experience with a more rigorous Algebra 1 curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards. He added that individual schools also took on improvement efforts.
In all, 74 percent of high school students in Montgomery failed June’s Algebra 1 semester-end final, as did 14 percent of middle school students, according to the data. Last year, 82 percent of high school students and 23 percent of middle school students failed the exams before the school system added extra points.
School Board President Patricia O’Neill described the Algebra 1 results as a slight, incremental improvement. “A lot of effort and analysis has gone into it,” she said. “It’s still a nagging problem. I don’t know totally what the solution is.”
In eight key math courses that more than 27,000 high school students took, many exam figures resembled those that alarmed parents when the issue came to public attention in 2013. High school final-exam failure rates in four courses exceeded 50 percent: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Bridge to Algebra 2 and Geometry.
The new numbers also showed improvements, with high school exam-failure rates dropping by 1 to 7 percentage points in five of the math subjects since 2013. In Geometry, which moved to a Common Core-based curriculum last school year, 64 percent of students failed the June exam, down from 68 percent last year and 71 percent a year earlier.
In Algebra 2, the trend went in the opposite direction, with 58 percent of students not passing the final, compared with 54 percent last June and 53 percent in 2013.
The numbers come as final exams are being reconsidered in Montgomery. Last week, the school board supported a move to eliminate two-hour finals for middle school courses. It is now examining a more far-reaching proposal that would replace high school final exams in 2016-2017 with in-class assessments such as unit tests, essays and projects.
The push for change followed concerns about the number of tests students take and instructional time lost to testing. A board committee is expected to take up exam-related policies next week, with a discussion by the full board slated for October.
The board’s vice president, Michael Durso, said the exam numbers remain important to the well-regarded school system. “I don’t think we should take any of it lightly,” he said.
District officials point out that failing the final does not mean students fail the course. In Algebra 1, for instance, 83 percent of high school students passed the course in June, even as nearly three-quarters failed the final. In some cases, the final can have little or no effect on the course grade.
In keeping with previous years, final-exam failure rates for June were lower in honors classes, with 26 percent of high school students failing the final in honors Geometry and 27 percent in honors Algebra 2.
Middle school students in the advanced math courses — who tend to be high achievers — also fared better: Just 4 percent of middle-schoolers taking honors Geometry and 10 percent taking honors Algebra 2 failed their June finals. Middle school students must pass the June exam to get course credit. High school students do not face the same requirement.
No single factor has been cited to explain why so many high school students fail their math finals. Some educators have linked the poor exam performance to students being advanced too quickly in math, or to a lack of preparation for a test that covers months of material. Some have said those who struggle need more support.
Many have blamed the district’s grading policies, which they say reduce student motivation.
Finals count for 25 percent of course grades in Montgomery, but students with a C in each of a semester’s two marking periods could fail the final and still get a C in the course. Some students consult a chart of grading scenarios as they decide how much to study.
Last year, school officials created a five-point plan for math improvement, which includes beefing up math expertise at the elementary school level, adding diagnostic tools to help support struggling students and increasing professional development.
“This has been a long-standing issue and we’re working through a number of strategies to address it,” Lang said.
Some Montgomery parents voiced ongoing frustration; others noted signs of change.
Karen Anderson, whose daughter recently took Algebra 1, said she believes something is wrong with the exams and would like to see a moratorium on them until problems are resolved. “The exam scores don’t match the student’s performance in class or the teacher’s evaluation of how the student is doing,” she said.
At Silver Spring International Middle School, Heather Powers Sauter, past president of the PTSA, said educators made an effort this year to provide support for students before final exams were given in Algebra 1 and honors Geometry, with special review sessions and reminders about the need to pass exams to obtain course credit.
“It was just a much better experience overall from last year,” she said.