Math, the Finals and the Data

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IMG_5227Our school district, MCPS, is in the middle of a “scandal”.  I put scandal in quotes not because something illegal took place, nothing did…but because the administrators, teachers and parents are all fuming, in shock, not surprised, angry, shaking their heads, etc. over information that for years has been quietly filed away by the central office.

Until a parent asked their high school principal for some data on this year’s first semester final exams for the math classes.  Those numbers went public about two weeks.  Which in turn resulted in news articles by the Gazette and the Washington Post.  More numbers were released and more articles were written.  Parents found other reports buried in the MCPS website.  The latest article from today has almost 300 comments.

So what’s the hub bub?  Thousands of students (over half) failing the 1st semester exam this year across 7 different math courses…algebra 1, geometry, honors geometry, bridge to algebra 2, algebra 2, honors algebra 2 and precalculus.  Was this an odd ball year?  Apparently not.  There’s a 13 year old report that shows essentially the same numbers.  And a 9 year old report with similar numbers, for English 1, biology, algebra 1, geometry, and US government.  And 3 days ago, data for those 7 math courses over the past 5 years was released.

I’m including links to all these articles and data tables so I will just summarize and highlight here. Students taking algebra 1 and honors geometry in middle school are much more successful than students taking those classes in high school. Students taking the honors level do much better than those in the non-honors equivalent class. Hispanic and African American students are failing at much higher levels than others.  So are students who fall into the ESOL, FARMS or SP ED groups. Over 60% of those taking algebra 1 and geometry failed the exam.  The worst class…bridge to algebra 2…86% failed.  The courses with the lowest failure rates are honors geometry (36%) and honors algebra 2 (30%).

One set of data tables details semester exam and course results by school, giving a breakdown of the grades for the exams and the semester grades for the course.  While many, many students fail the semester exams, far fewer students fail the course.  And as one would expect, performance varies immensely across the schools.  The data for the past 5 years, shows that lower level high school math classes ( algebra 1, geometry and bridge to algebra 2) have generally seen higher failure rates than the higher level math classes.  The same chart also includes data from the second semester exams.  Those results seem to show no pattern, sometimes the failure rates go down for the second semester, sometimes they go up.  This set of charts includes those students who take algebra 1, honors geometry and honors algebra 2 in middle school.  To receive credit for a high school class taken in middle school, students “must successfully complete” both semesters of the class in the same year and “must pass the semester B exam.”

Of course the fingers have been pointing in every direction and at everyone.  Which is probably the best approach to take because there is no 1 reason, cause, excuse, explanation for these numbers.  Once the dust settles and if/when the data is examined in detail I think the reasons that will come out will include (in no particular order):

  • students who skip the semester exams because there will be no impact up or down on the semester grade (there’s a chart they use to figure out what they need on the semester exam to maintain or go up or down a grade)
  • poor teaching
  • over acceleration (many current high school students went through their early years being accelerated through math levels as demanded by the previous superintendent who wanted quotas met for accelerating students)
  • students who are behind, maybe significantly, and not doing well with the course material
  • students who don’t study for the exam because they think they know it well enough
  • tests contain errors or poorly written questions (we’ve run into that)
  • misalignment of what is being covered and what is being tested (which doesn’t mean teach to the test, but make sure all the material is covered in class)
  • lack of support when students start to struggle
  • passing students along before the topics are mastered

I’m sure there are a few missing from the list.  Numerous questions have been raised as well:

  • Why are student’s with A’s and B’s for the course work failing the exams?
  • Some students are studying for the exams, why are they still failing?
  • How many of the students are taking the lower level classes behind schedule?
  • What about the other core academic subjects?
  • Has this been happening every year?

I think the failure rates are so high in large part because many of these students have been permitted to move along to the next grade without being proficient with the material of the previous grade.  This has been true for math and English/reading.  I’ve kept an eye on the current batch of high schoolers as they are my son’s cohorts.  And for the 6 years that I’ve watched the state assessment math and reading scores for the schools that feed our high school, the number of students who fell in the failing Basic category ranged from 25%-almost 50%.  And yes, the minorities, low-income and ESOL students were the ones that were failing in high numbers.  Yet those students kept moving along, but the number didn’t improve the next year…if anything they got worse.  The past 2 or 3 years our local elementary seems to have made good progress.

But at my daughter’s middle school, I know that each of the 3 grades has 3 levels of remedial reading classes.  One being for students who are 1 year behind, one for those 2 years behind and the other for those 3+ years behind.  Why are there students entering middles school 3 years behind in reading?  How can they be successful in science and social studies?  Eighth graders who are at least 3 years behind?  What level did they start at?  Have they made any progress?  How many have given up?  How many are seriously behind in both math and reading?  Do we really think they will be successful and even get a quality on-grade level education in high school when they start so far behind?

As depressing as I think the data will be, we need to see the same information for the other core subjects.  It’s time to stop simply filing away the numbers and claiming success based on AP participation, SAT scores, random rankings, etc.


One thought on “Math, the Finals and the Data

  1. Valerie Post author

    And here is the first piece on the other core subjects…those that require a bit of reading. The numbers are not as bad and the students in Honors courses are doing much better, but there are many in the “on-grade” level courses who are failing…

    If you are not reading at grade level, all of these courses are going to be a struggle, it’s as simple as that. For some, most(?), who are failing; the failure started in ES and MCPS can if it wants, identify those students and see their academic history and now what the result is of years of being behind in reading skills.


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