A school system works to solve a math problem: test failures

WASHINGTON — See if you can solve this math problem:

Sixty-seven percent of your students take and pass algebra with a “C” or better, but recent data shows thousands of students are failing their semester finals.

In Montgomery County, the Washington Post reported data from the school system showed that 57 percent of the students taking the Algebra 2 exam failed it. For students taking geometry the numbers were more alarming: 62 percent failed. Even precalculus students struggled; 48 percent of the students in that course failed.

Dylan Presman is the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Rockville High school where his son is a sophomore, “The data is — there’s no other word for it — the data is just shocking.”

Presman says he first became alarmed when a group of principals reported to the Board of Education in March that exam failure rates had been an ongoing issue. “When the principals started talking about 60 to 70 percent of students failing, that really was a red flag.” In one course, Bridge to Algebra 2, a class for students who need support, the failure rate on the exam was 86 percent.

Julie Greenberg, senior policy analyst at the National Council on Teacher Quality and a former Montgomery County math teacher, said the news is not a surprise to her. “I was surprised that it was news to anybody … we had very high failure rates on the semester exams when I administered them.” Greenberg left the county school system six years ago.

Greenberg says it’s important to take a hard look at what’s going on now, but that she had concerns that the school system’s grading policy gave an inaccurate picture of students’ understanding of the material. When she taught, if a student got an “F” on an assignment, that was calculated at 50 percent. If a student failed a test or quiz, they could retake that quiz or test. That grading policy is still in place according to MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig. Greenberg says that policy gave students a cushion heading into finals, but that their deficiencies in understanding wouldn’t be evident until the semester exam.

Presman says the problems around student performance on exams were not new to the school board, that area principals had reported their concerns in the past. “This initially came up to the school board in March,” and Presman says he’s eager to see what the school system does to address the issue. Montgomery County School spokesman Dana Tofig says a work group is being formed to study the issue beginning in June.

Presman says in his experience there are two reasons bureaucracies form work groups. “One is because they want to get all the stakeholders together and really take a deep look at an issue. And another is because they want to sweep an issue under the carpet. And I can’t tell you at this point which this is.” But he adds, he’s cautiously optimistic.

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