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School system posts eighty two percent failure rate in Algebra finals-Part 1

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After eighty two percent of students failed their final exams in Algebra 1B, report cards for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) students were delayed by three days after school officials chose to add fifteen percentage points to all final grade scores, the school system announced on June 27, 2014.

The news release titled “Summary of Unique Issues Surrounding Algebra 1B Semester Exams,” issued on June 27, states that school officials, in the “process of reviewing the results of Algebra 1B semester exams,” had “discovered that a higher than expected number of middle and high school students received low and failing grades on the tests.” The news release continues, “Because students had no control over this loss of instructional time, the semester exams were recalculated, with 15 percentage points being added to the results of every test.” Principals and teachers in the district had determined that the loss of instructional time in the second semester due to the need for additional preparation for the state Algebra/Data Analysis High School Assessments (HSA) as a major reason for the poor MCPS semester exam performance.

Via a public information request, the Examiner obtained Algebra 1 syllabi for both the pre-Common Core version of Algebra 1 and the new version of Algebra 1 rolled out by the district. It is difficult to conclude that the new curriculum would have raised additional instructional hurdles. An assessment of the two versions of Algebra 1, at least based on the limited material provided by the district, was delayed by this column until the final examination results were released by the district.

According to figures released by the district, in June 2014, 28% of middle school enrollees in Algebra 1 and 82% of high school enrollees failed the final exam. Both middle school and high school enrollees take the Algebra/Data Analysis HSA exam on completion of their Algebra 1 course. Consequently, both groups undergo preparation for the HSA exam. The substantially higher numbers of high school students failing the final exam seems to indicate that the problem lies elsewhere.

Possibilities are that too many high school students are being accepted into Algebra 1 classes and teachers are unable to successfully address the needs of students of a wide range of preparation in a single classroom. In other words, there is a distinct possibility that teachers are not adequately prepared.

Supporting this conclusion is a number of realities. A Harvard publication titled "Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools," states that "The district is in talks with Lockheed Martin's Simulation, Training and Support group to create a prototype of a potentially breakthrough approach to teacher training.” According to the publication, Brian Edwards, the then-superintendent's chief-of-staff, was managing discussions about the development of a new approach to algebra professional development. Clearly, MCPS was not persuaded that teachers have a mastery of core algebra skills.

This column has been steadfast in questioning the quality of math instruction in MCPS. Back in September 2012, this column opined “A close look at Algebra I, taught in MCPS middle schools, provides an interesting path to an answer. The curriculum promotes a rote memorization of formulae with nary an inkling of what it means or how it was derived. That is not to say that the curriculum isn’t good preparation for the Maryland High School Assessment (HSA)—it is. However, in terms of preparing students with a deep understanding of mathematical concepts, it fails miserably.” Previously, on November 30, 2011, this column expressed the opinion that instead of the rote memorization that seems to be promoted by the district, “A robust math curriculum that promotes a deep understanding of concepts, for every child, should be the MCPS goal.”

The constant drumbeat by this column that the MCPS math instruction philosophy was a failure predates the first hints of trouble brought to light by droves of students failing the math final exam. On January 12, 2014, this column took the extra step of encapsulating previously expressed opinions and additional information in a column titled “A possible explanation for math failures in Montgomery County Public Schools,” concluding recent ‘steep failure rates in countywide tests’ could simply be the consequence of the MCPS teaching paradigm.
The recent uptick in final exam failure rates demands that the school system stops beating around the bush and make a frank and open assessment of teacher preparation and its influence on the high math failure rates. Bumping up exam scores by fifteen percentage points is nothing more than Band Aid on a problem that requires a far more serious solution.