Teachers lay blame for finals failures

In a suburban Maryland county known for high-performing schools, 62 percent of students flunked their geometry finals in January, 57 percent failed their Algebra 2 exams and 48 percent earned F’s on the precalculus final, reports the Washington Post.

Montgomery County high schools give the same math exams:  For the last five years, results have been poor countywide, though worse at some schools.

Under county policy, students can fail the final but pass the course.

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.”

Failure rates are high in biology, English and history finals as well.

Math teachers at Poolesville High school start their list of causes with acceleration of students through math to meet “unrealistic targets.”  Too many students don’t fully understand math, the teachers write.

Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors.  The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure.

. .  .The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra.

In all content areas, Montgomery County has undercut students’ motivation to work hard, the Poolesville math teachers charge.

High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.  Absenteeism is up because students face no consequences for cutting class.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    “Under county police, students can fail the final but pass the course.”


    policies? Or is something very strange going on?

  2. Foobarista says:

    Sounds like “everyone gets a trophy!” self-esteem nonsense has infested these “honors” courses with people who shouldn’t be there. Seats in these courses should be reserved for actual good students who have some hope of actually doing honors-level work.

  3. “High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.”

    Right there is a succinct statement of the problem. If you want to fix the problem, change those two policies.

  4. I’m not in the district this article talks about, but I’ ve had similar happen to my child. Walked into the math midterm for 8th grade with a high 90s average, rec’d a 65 on the midterm. I requested my parent look-see, and found child had scored a 100 on the portion that covered the material taught in class, and a 0 on the material for the units that had not been taught yet. His poor teacher could not afford to stand up to the admin and be fired. I took it as my cue to give up on the school.

    • I don’t think the failure rates on the finals are like this, but rather the students learn very quickly that with high enough grades, they can blow the final off and still pass the class.

      To put a stop to this, they should state that you must score above a given percentage on the final exam to earn credit in the class (IMO, if a student is pulling A’s or B’s in a given class, there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to score at least 70% or better on the final exam, assuming the final is covering material which is covered in class).

      I prefer the IT certification exams I’ve taken, which are graded pass/fail, and you find out immediately the score (if you pass, your readout on the computer is in GREEN), and if you fail it is in RED.

      You then get a breakdown in percentages of how you did in each section, so that if you need to take the exam again, you can hit those sections hard, and review the other areas, and pass it the next time.

  5. Just change the percentages the Final Exams are worth – say, 35% of the total grade – and advertise it. The scores next year will be dramatically different.

  6. My kids attended school in this district for many years and I think the problem is two-fold. One issue is the one mentioned in above comments; weighting and importance of the final, to the extent that it allows kids to “blow off” the final.
    The other is that, for over 25 years, the course descriptions in the countywide book have not described what is actually happening in some schools. The descriptions have been accurate for the schools whose students come from highly-educated, affluent families, but in those schools with large high-needs populations, the kids don’t have enough background to really “do” algebra etc., so the class really isn’t learning that material. According to WaPo comments from those identifying themselves as county math teachers, there has been a big push to get more and more kids into algebra early (ready or not), along with a mandated bottom grade of 50 (no zeros, even for missing work), a push for giving lots of partial credit and pressure not to fail kids (aka grade inflation). All of that really means that kids are being pumped along without learning the material, and the problem gets worse as they “advance” through the grades. It will probably get worse, because MoCo has just made a partnership agreement with Pearson, to use their math curriculum at all levels, and I’ve heard that the curriculum has serious flaws.