Of widgets and failure

What’s a school to do if it looks like students just aren’t doing so well this year?


Report cards for Montgomery County’s 151,000 students were mailed Friday after a three-day delay that followed a mass recalculation of final exam grades for Algebra 1, according to the school system.

Schools officials said late Friday that they added 15 percentage points to all Algebra 1 exam scores after they became aware that already-high rates of failure had risen markedly.

You’re not misreading that. Scores were too low. So they just gave everyone an extra 15 points on the final.

Now I’m not wholly against shaping grade outcomes to meet a predetermined distribution. Fixed curves are better at differentiating, and the competition they breed tends to really push students to excel. (Unfortunately, they have the side effect of making those on the bottom end of things feel like giving up.) This happens in the hard sciences and math all of the time, where a 40% on a final is often a B+.

But this is something different.

Erick Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said the main cause of the failure spike appears to have been a loss of instructional time in the spring semester, as teachers prepared students for state exams required for graduation.

The preparation for state exams took two to three weeks out of the semester, he said.

* * * *

Lang said that officials added the extra points so that students would not be penalized for a problem they did not create.

So let me get this straight. I’m trying to be charitable here, and assume that the district isn’t just inflating grades across the board to cover up their own failure (which very well may be the case).

The district has an Algebra I course that covers, let’s call it A1, where A1 is the set of Algebraic topics {1,2,3,4}. And the district also has a test which covers A1. But the state has a test that covers A2, which is the set of topics {1,2,3,5}, let’s say.

So the teachers teach A2 as their algebra class, sacrificing the time that would have been spent teaching topic 4, and instead teaching topic 5. Because it’s a state test and presumably there are money, jobs, and other things at stake.

So then they give the district test, and a huge number of students are unprepared to be tested on topic 4, because they never learned it. Because the teachers weren’t teaching it. Because they were teaching A2 instead of A1.

And… wait for it…. wait for it…


Does that about sum it up?

This is what happens when you treat youth education like a mass-scale industrial process and not like the series of interpersonal relationships that it’s supposed to be. You get product defects that affect production runs of hundreds and thousands of widgets. Except those widgets are students. And no one is paying attention because they’re all trusting the system.

You know who should be an absolute authority on what sort of test is given as a final to an Algebra class? The Algebra Teachers. If you’re a teacher, and you’re letting someone else design your final exam (a questionable situation in the first place), and you don’t know exactly what’s in that final exam, then you’ve failed at your job.

And if you do know what’s in that exam, and you don’t teach it? You’ve failed at your job. And if you agree to teach a subject knowing that you can’t teach it in the time allotted? You’ve failed at your job. And if you don’t take a few hours at the beginning of the term to get a handle on exactly what you need to teach and how much time you’ll have to teach it? You’ve failed at your job.

And if you do all of the things you have to to succeed at your job, and you recognize the $#!+storm coming down the tracks, and you recognize that you are not in fact going to be teaching your students something on which they will be tested by the community, and you take the community’s money knowing that you can’t possibly do what’s being asked, why then you’re a fraud and a coward.

Now my purpose isn’t to rag on teachers, here. My purpose is to explain that the district seems to be putting out a story in which the best-case scenario is that every single one of their Algebra I teachers is entirely unfit for his or her position as an Algebra I teacher.

In the first case, I hope that the teachers realize this, and object. In the second case, I doubt it’s true. I smell a rat.

UPDATE: Fixed an effect/affect error.


  1. Having had kids go through MCPS, I’m betting that this is related to the”8th-grade-algebra-for-all” push (and, since my kids graduated, pushing more kids into alg 2 and beyond), which pushes kids into classes for which they lack the necessary background knowledge &/or the ability to handle abstractions. There’s probably a geographic issue, too; in that some schools have so many unprepared kids that the course is so weakened that the prepared kids don’t get the “real” course. Both of these issues have been in play for decades, except that 8th-grade algebra used to be honors-only, with non-honors algebra first offered to freshmen. The low pass rate was masked for years, by allowing each HS to set their own passing grade (which the school board was shocked, shocked! to discover, after at least a decade of this practice). I’m also guessing that the “optics” of the kids who passed the test (and others) “don’t look well” – just as it didn’t when only prepared kids were allowed into 8th honors and upper-division math.

    • I should add that the background knowledge/readiness for algebra issue goes back to ES – like most of the issues. By the time kids hit HS, too many are hopelessly behind.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    From my own experience and from reading Education Realist, my guess is that

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    From my own experience and from reading Education Realist, my guess is that what was supposed to be taught was way too much for a lot of the students. Teachers are then presented with a choice: cover everything that is supposed to be covered and know for a moral certainty that a lot of the class will be lost and will fail and may present “classroom management” problems–or cover part of the requirements. Many teachers chose the second option (perhaps without any conscious choice, just not feeling able to go on to the next topic when so many kids don’t get the present one).

    It is really unfair to the teachers. But to complain is to brand yourself “not a team player,” not “inclusive,” and perhaps someone who hates kids. Because to be realistic about kid’s abilities is to tell some unpleasant truths.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    If one ever wants to know a person’s beliefs on education, just ask them if everyone is capable of learning calculus. If someone believes that everyone can leanr calculus, they should be ignored when it comes to discussing education, academics, learning styles, or student ability.

    • You’re absolutely right, but not for the reasons that you think. The phrase “capable of learning calculus” is undefined, since “calculus” is a range of skills, from simple differentials to tensors.

      Just so you can know to ignore me in the future, I am one of those people who think that all kids of “normal” intelligence can learn the principles of simple differentials, instantaneous values, rates of change and the other things that normally come at the beginning of a calculus class. Past that, where it gets very abstract, I don’t think all kids could go. There is, at some point, a wall that all of us hit (different for each), but I think that wall is farther away than most.

      Of course, I had the advantage of an absolutely top-ranked calculus teacher in high school who made it all seem easy. This may inflate my expectations a bit, but on the other hand, I have seen what is possible.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        superdestroyer and Rob, I’m not sure how much you are disagreeing. Rob says that “all kids of ‘normal’ intelligence can learn the principles of simple differentials, instantaneous values, rates of change and the other things that normally come at the beginning of a calculus class.”

        This differs in three ways from superdestroyer’s dis. It excludes people of less than normal intelligence. How many is that? The bottom 10%? 20%? 30%? It is also about the “principles … that normally come at the beginning of a calculus class.” It is not about an entire course. I suspect that superdestroyer would agree that most people can understand the principle of “rate of change.” After all, most every driver has some idea what “55 miles per hour” means.

        Thirdly, there is a difference between understanding basic principles and being able to apply the principles. Much of a calculus class is the latter.

      • I doubt than many individuals with IQ’s less than 110 can master calculus sufficently to make learning it of any real value.

        • Jim,

          Students who cannot add, subtract, multiply, divide, handle percentages and fractions won’t make it through algebra I, never mind calculus or anything higher in college.

    • If a student cannot master the basics of add, subtract, multiply, divide, and handle percentages and fractions, they’ll never make it into calculus. I work in STEM and have several degrees in CS and IT, and when the students saw the math requirements, they usually threw up and changed majors in a hurry, never mind the science requirements for a CS major.

  5. tim-10-ber says:

    Very sad…for many kids this should be an easy fix if the kids had qualified and effective math teachers starting in K or at least first grade. But the elementary certification tends to mean you have little, if any math knowledge. If I remember correctly (someone please tell me this is changed) the elementary certification can be used through at least 6th grade. This means countless kids have teachers who should NOT EVER TEACH MATH, science or english, etc. So, whether or not the kids can or cannot do calculus is irrelevant. If the kids do not have qualified and effective math teachers in the very early years of school we will never know how far the kids can go in math. We need to stop blaming the kids and focus on the problem – unqualified teachers been asked to teach something of which they have no knowledge, skills or confidence. Education qualifications and training need to be changed. This is crazy…

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There are two problems. One is bad math teaching in elementary school. The other is kids who find the abstraction of higher math very, very difficult. We pretend that those kids don’t exist. So educators say, of course, everybody should be forced to take higher math. After all, it’s the gateway to STEM.

      But if a kid will not be able to get through that doorway without years and years and years of intensive practice, practice that he will probably hate and resist, it is not doing him any favors to force him to try to go through.

      • There is also the issue of poor math curriculum use in ES and MS. I don’t see Common Core fixing that issue.

      • >We pretend that those kids don’t exist.

        Why is it then that they seem to exist in such greater numbers today than in the past? When I was a kid (back in the early 1970s), we all had to take algebra I and algebra II and nearly everyone managed it (in those simple days, if you failed it, you were forced to take it again, so the failures stood out). When my father was attending a small Catholic school in rural Texas, everyone had to do math through simple trigonometry and they had to bloody well “get” it or they would catch hell from the nuns.

        It’s only in the last few decades that there are suddenly so many students incapable of high school math.

        From here:


        we find Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts:

        “Regarding education, correspondence with his friend and former teacher George Wythe remarked on how geometrical demonstrations should be used to teach students. He also pointed out that the general principles of trigonometry, astronomy, botany, chemistry, natural philosophy, natural history, and anatomy should be known by every man.”

        He didn’t mention calculus, of course, but it was only 100 years old at the time of the constitution and not likely well understood by many who weren’t professors.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          “Why is it then that they seem to exist in such greater numbers today than in the past?”

          1) We now expect every single 14-18 year old to go to high school. That was not the case in the past. Lots of kids who weren’t academically inclined just didn’t go.

          2) Lots of high school kids didn’t take abstract math. They took things like “business math.” Nowadays, just about everyone is expected to take algebra.

          • We also have a continual flow of low-skill immigrants who not only don’t speak English but who are also likely to be illiterate in their own language. Worse, a not-insignificant number of Mexican immigrants take their kids “home” in December and stay 6-8 weeks. A Fairfax Co teacher relative was warned about this when she arrived.

            The WaPo has a current article about Fairfax County, VA,’s huge increase in ESL kids; now 40% of all kindergarteners. MoCo is almost certainly in a similar situation.

        • I wonder what percentage of the present US population would meet Jefferson’s standards.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          “Why is it then that they seem to exist in such greater numbers today than in the past? When I was a kid (back in the early 1970s), we all had to take algebra I and algebra II and nearly everyone managed it…”
          Professor Raimi at Rochester remembers things differently …

  6. Saw this here too, but curve only apllied to the 8th grade in my kiddo’s year. The desire is to make a mediocre politically connected kid look on paper as having the same achievement as the math brains. Kids with a 97 average would end up with the same score on the transcript as ones who earned a 75, plus recd a boost from redoing for half credit plus the curve. The curve cant boost anyone past a 100 average…15 points added on to the 99 is a 100. Yeah, everyone looks the same on paper.

  7. I am in no way trying to excuse this. I disagree with the district’s actions. but there may be extenuating circumstances. Take my experience last year. We have a real tight US History PLC. We set up a pacing guide for the year, and re-examined it at the beginning of each quarter. Midway through the 4th quarter, we were suddenly told that we (US History) would be responsible for testing the new testing system…a whole day sitting in computer labs..and no history content. A week later…we were given a survey that took a whole period to complete. A week later, we were given another test from the federal government…another day down. The administration ended up taking five days from us with absolutely no warning, completely blowing up our pacing guide.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Playing with grades like this may be “fair” to the students, but it also makes it abundantly clear that an “A” doesn’t have to mean that the student in question learned the material. So what do grades mean other than “teacher was happy with student’s performance”? Substitute principal for teacher. Or whatever.
      If I’m measuring something “real” like how fast a kid runs the 100 yard dash, adding 1.5 seconds to everyone’s time is clearly bogus. If the kids didn’t learn the material they were supposed to have learned (even if it wasn’t their fault), then boosting their grades is a lie. Unless the grades aren’t supposed to imply learning/knowledge.
      Which, more and more, I’m coming to believe is true 🙁

      • Also when my kids were in MCPS, they did fake athletic results. One of my older sons and I were helping run the ES field day the year the gym teacher (who had already divided all students into teams which were as even as possible, for the team award) decided that no student could receive more than one individual award, regardless of the events that s/he won. Naturally, the most athletic kids (boys and girls competing separately) won most events. One ribbon each. The following year, my kids were “sick” and we went into DC for a museum trip and a nice lunch.

        At about the same time, one MCPS principal decreed that none of the coaches would be allowed to cut any player who came to tryouts – even at the varsity level. That was such a problem that she backed down – reluctantly – the following year.


  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    What is interesting is the district’s presumption that the citizenry will believe the story.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      When the options are to believe the district’s story or to believe, “my kid deserved to fail,” I know what a lot of parents will pick.

      After all, the people who run MCPS are professionals, experts. Of course, they tell the truth. It’s not like they’re working for some greedy profit-making corporation.

  9. Roger, most kids these days couldn’t even handle ‘business/consumer’ math as it was called when I attended high school. When students do NOT master the concepts of Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, Percentages, and Fractions in ES, they are doomed to failure in middle and high school, regardless of the math they’re taking.

    Adding 15% to everyone’s score isn’t going to solve any problems, it’s like social promotion, all you’re doing is pushing the problem farther up the line.


  10. My daughter is in a Montgomery County, MD high school and I’m familiar with the testing practices here. I think students in all of the math classes, including in ES, have the same unit tests and final exams county-wide; the thinking, I believe, is that this allows comparisons between students/schools and provides incentives for schools to ensure that students are all being exposed to the same material regardless of which school they attend. I’ll make no claim on whether this is the best idea or works the way the system intends. Certainly there’s a problem if preparation for the state Algebra 1 test and preparation for the semester final exam are so different that one had to be sacrificed for the other. (Of course this assumes that the reason given for the grade changes is true). I am surprised that the article did not mention that we also lost 10 school days to snow, many of which occurred in late winter/early spring.

    • Jerry Doctor says:

      Lost 10 days? Out of 180? That’s just over 5% so we have to raise the scores 15 percentage points. (Much greater than a 15% increase in the test grades.) But since we can write an explanation for our “answer” this must be mathematically valid.

      This comes down to one thing: Don’t get the parents angry about the job we are doing. Angry parents don’t vote for bond issues. Angry parents don’t re-elect school board members. Angry parents stop believing that we know best. Much better to just lie about our “accomplishments.”