Naomi Weintraub took her two-hour precalculus final exam at Montgomery Blair High School with great expectations. The 10th-grader had studied, completed her review packet and earned A’s in both quarters. But her grade on the January exam: D.
“I was so upset,” said Naomi, 15. “I worked so hard.”
Sergio Bolanos, 14, a ninth-grader at Northwood High School, decided to hit the books for his January geometry exam but strategically opted not to go all-out. He was aiming for a C. “I had an A first quarter and an A second quarter, so on the final exam, it didn’t really matter what I got,” Sergio said. The result: He failed.
Both students are part of what has become a startling phenomenon in Montgomery County’s high schools: High rates of failing and near-failing grades on math final exams.
In a suburban county far more accustomed to the glow of success and national accolades for school performance, parents and elected leaders are demanding answers: Why did 62 percent of high school students flunk their geometry finals in January? Why did 57 percent bomb their Algebra 2 exams? Why did 48 percent falter on the final test in precalculus?
Those questions intensified late Friday, when school officials released detailed data showing the high failure rates were consistent across five school years and that some Montgomery high schools had particularly poor results. The math exams are countywide and uniform across all schools.
“I’m just amazed this hasn’t blown up a long time ago,” said Mel Riddile of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, where Montgomery’s latest exam results have left many wondering whether similar problems are hiding in other districts.
School leaders, experts and teachers offer several possible explanations for the poor exam performance, which dates back more than a decade in algebra, according to school system reports and board minutes.
They say it could be that the longtime push in Montgomery to accelerate students in math has moved too many students too quickly and left them with an understanding of the subject that isn’t deep enough.
It could be that the day-to-day classroom instruction is not preparing students for what awaits at semester’s end.
Or it could be — for some, like Sergio — a choice: Many students make their own calculations about whether revving up for the big test makes sense, given the grades that precede it can render the test moot.
Montgomery students said they often refer to a chart, posted on an archived county PTA Web site, that details 125 grade scenarios, only four of which would lead to failing a course because of failing the final exam. Schools officials confirmed the chart’s accuracy.
For example, with C’s in each of a semester’s two quarters, an E on the final exam would still result in a C for the course. A student with two B’s going into the final exam needs only a D or better on the test to maintain a B for the course, according to the chart. The exam, worth 25 percent of a course grade, holds sway but can be greatly outmatched by daily classroom performance over time.
“Maybe the teenagers are blowing it off because the district is blowing it off,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies student achievement. “If the district doesn’t take the exams seriously, I don’t understand why they give them.”
Danielle Bartley, a student at John F. Kennedy High School, failed an exam two years ago, and it served as a wake-up call. Now 17 and a junior, she has rebounded, and her mother, Danna Walters, says perhaps finals should carry more weight. “It pushes them harder to think,” Walters said.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr called the exam failure rates “unacceptably high” for some courses, but described the tests as only one measure of student success. Montgomery students on average outperform the state and nation in math on the SAT, and Starr pointed out that student scores have been rising over the past five years. The average student score in Montgomery on Advanced Placement math exams also has increased.
All of this has made the final exam problem even more puzzling to some. Experts point out that AP and SAT results often track with wealth. But 90 percent of Montgomery students also pass Maryland’s state high school algebra test.
Starr has created work groups to examine issues related to the county math exam failures, including policy, curriculum alignment, professional development and instructional effectiveness. He said he would like at least some changes in place by fall.
Montgomery has been more focused on course completion than on final exam grades, Starr said. The data school officials released Friday night show recent course failure rates of 12 percent for Algebra 2 and 16 percent for geometry, far below the final exam failure rates in those courses.