This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. on April 30, 2013.
Montgomery County parents are alarmed after learning how many high school students failed their first final exams this school year. Now that data on failure rates is circulating, school officials say they will look into countywide exams, curriculum and student results.
The majority of Montgomery County Public Schools high school students enrolled in grade-level math courses such as algebra and geometry failed their first final exam, according to countywide school system data from 2012 final exams.
Of the high school students enrolled in Algebra 1, 61 percent failed; of those in geometry, 62 percent failed; of those in Algebra 2, 57 percent failed; of those in precalculus, 48 percent failed, according to the data.
Students who are not in advanced classes had much higher rates of failure.
School system administrators are setting up a study group to “get to the root of the issue,” said Erick Lang, the school system’s associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“If you look at the data, you can’t help but be pretty shocked,” said Dylan Presman, PTSA president at Rockville High.
School board member Michael A. Durso (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the data, to him, is “a red flag.”
“My concern is ... a lot of times the curriculum and the tests don’t always match up,” Durso said.
Durso was Springbrook High’s principal for 13 years before being elected to the board in 2009.
He said math teachers have been worried for years about skimming through topics, without depth.
Presman is concerned that there is an issue of misalignment between the curriculum and exams.
Lang said other factors come into play, such as students’ motivation to study for the exams, which they do not need to ace to pass their courses.
Lang said his office has talked about this issue before hearing about it from principals this winter.
“We have kind of said there are a bunch of factors that weigh into this,” he said. “But we haven’t done anything.”
The data became public last week, when Presman received a chart showing countywide final-exam grade results from Rockville Principal Debra Munk, then sent it to his PTSA listserv. This data is stored privately in a school system database, although Lang said it has been published in reports previously.
The study group will get to the root of the issue — looking at curriculum and the exams to determine misalignment issues, looking at school-by-school data to determine if individual teaching and testing is an issue, and maybe talking to students in focus groups about “how they prioritize exams,” Lang said.
In Montgomery County Public Schools, the final is weighted as 25 percent of students’ final semester grades, which they take at the end of each semester, twice a school year.
Students use a chart with grade scenarios, such as AAC = A (for first quarter, second quarter, final exam and final semester grades), to determine what they need to get on their final to maintain their grade from the semesters, or pass the class. Students need an A, B, C, or D to pass; E is failing.
“Kids make decisions about the exams they are going to study for,” Lang said.
The failing rate was only significant for students on the slower path through math courses.
Most Montgomery students are on the fast track through math courses. This year, 62 percent of students — or 7,546 of 12,025 students — taking Algebra 1 are still in middle school. Some students reach geometry before high school; 2,580 middle-school students are taking honors geometry this year.
The recent data only includes those taking the courses in high school. When you add in the students who took Algebra 1 in middle school, the failure rate goes down to 11 percent, Lang said.
Students in honors courses fared better, leading Lang to believe that student motivation is a factor. Of the students taking honors geometry, 64 percent passed; of those in honors Algebra 2, 70 percent passed.
“I worry about generalizing, but, quite frankly, sometimes kids are a little more motivated on their grades if they are in an honors course,” Lang said. “That is certainly potential [cause] there. Beyond that, I really would hate to speculate.”
No matter the level of the student, though, Lang said, every student should succeed.
“Our goal is to hold everybody to the same standard, no matter when they take the exam, because we want them all to succeed,” he said.
Durso said even if you factor out kids who are “blowing off” the exam, and even if adults take the exams more seriously than children, there is still an issue.
Comparatively, students taking non-honors English courses did not show as dramatic a rate of failure. About a quarter of students in ninth and 12th grades failed and about one third of the students in grades 10 and 11 failed, according to school system data.
Laurie Halverson, curriculum co-chair for the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, worries that this might be a school-by-school issue, or that teachers of grade-level courses might be developing less challenging quizzes and tests.
County teachers use a set county curriculum, making their own lessons and, for the most part, their own tests. They do not see the final at the beginning of the semester, although they can view a study guide for it, Lang said.
The school system has not given high school math teachers professional development for five or six years, due to a lack of funding, Lang said, so that might also be a factor that the study group will consider.
“Are we supporting teachers with their instruction?” he said.
Halverson met with Lang on Friday, after she received the chart from Presman.
Presman had asked Munk for the chart after the Montgomery County Board of Education came to a February meeting at Rockville High. Fellow parents and principals made it clear that it was a systemwide issue; Presman said his daughter received a low grade on her final.
Halverson said her son, a junior, believes it is an individual study issue.
Still, Halverson is concerned and wants to know more.
“Something is not right when you see a high failure rate like this,” she said.
Parents, principals, teachers and maybe students will be invited to participate in the study group to take a look at curriculum, class tests, finals and exam results, Lang said.
The group will meet from June to September, he said.
The situation will change regardless of study group results next year, as the school system is beginning to roll out the new Curriculum 2.0 in secondary math courses, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.
Those teaching Algebra 1 will receive professional development this summer, as the Algebra 1 curriculum is the first to switch over, next school year. By 2017, all math courses will be on the new curriculum.
The school system announced in January that the math pathways for students will also change under the new curriculum, putting all students on track for Algebra 1 in eighth grade.
Under the new curriculum, students might have better mastery of math concepts, as it is meant to go deeper and make sure students know how to apply what they have learned in multiple ways, Tofig said.