Starr Addresses High Failure Rates on Math Exams
A Statement from Superintendent Joshua P. Starr on High School Mathematics Final Exams and Course Completion:
“Over the past few weeks, there has been much discussion about final exam results, specifically high failure rates on high school final exams in mathematics. Since I arrived at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in July 2011—and for years before that—our schools have been focused on course completion in mathematics, not on the specific elements that make up the final grades. While that will continue to be the case, it is clear from a review of historical data that failure rates on some high school mathematics final exams are unacceptably high and have been so for a number of years. This requires us to look at various aspects of our mathematics program, including policy, curriculum alignment, professional development, and instructional effectiveness.
“The district has received several requests for data about final exams and course completion and we are releasing some of that information today [May 17]. However, this data cannot be looked at in isolation. The data should help us ask better questions and should also be used to identify and address the individual needs of each student.
“The final exam data does not tell the whole story of how our students are performing in mathematics. For instance, while 39 percent of our high school students earned a passing grade (A, B, C, or D) on the Algebra 1 final exam in January 2013, 81 percent earned a passing grade in the class for the first semester. So failure on the final exam does not mean failure in the class. Also, student performance on the mathematics portion of the SAT has improved the past five years, rising from 549 (out of 800) in 2008 to 561 in 2012.
“However, that does not mean we can simply accept high failure rates on the final exams, nor can we accept the variability in performance among schools and among different subgroups of students. This is something that must be addressed and, I promise, will be addressed.
“Some of the systemic solutions are underway. The Mathematics Work Group, established in 2009 and comprised of teachers, administrators, parents and other stakeholders, spent two years reviewing the MCPS mathematics program and made several recommendations that are being implemented. For instance, MCPS is in the process of implementing Curriculum 2.0—which includes the new Common Core State Standards in mathematics—that will allow students to go deeper in math and better prepare them for high school classes and beyond. We are investing significant resources to support this implementation, including professional development for teachers, an implementation team that will provide direct support to schools, and 30 Focus teachers to provide additional mathematics and literacy instruction in specific schools.
“I believe the steps we are taking will strengthen our mathematics program in the future and better prepare our students for postsecondary education and the workplace. However, we cannot stand by and let current students in our schools go through middle and high school with gaps in their mathematics knowledge and understanding. We must serve and support those students now.
“To assess our current and future needs in mathematics, I am establishing two groups. The first will be a committee of administrators and teachers who will address some of the immediate issues surrounding mathematics instruction, including how to quickly offer support to students who are performing poorly. I’ve asked Dr. Christopher Garran and Dr. Darryl Williams—both community superintendents who are former high school principals—to lead this group, which will come up with recommendations that can be implemented at the beginning of next school year.
“The second group will be an ongoing committee of parents, administrators and teachers who will provide ongoing oversight and feedback on the MCPS mathematics program. This group will include some members of the Mathematics Work Group, as well as other staff and community members, who will regularly review the impact that our policies, budgetary decisions, and instructional practices are having on student achievement and success.
“There is more than one reason that some of our students are performing poorly on mathematics exams and, subsequently, there is more than one solution. But I know that, working together, we can find those solutions and provide our students the knowledge and skills they need for success.”