Montgomery Blair High School's Online Student Newspaper
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July 28, 2013

High failure rates on final exams result of MCPS policy

by Harini Salgado, Online Entertainment Editor
Recently, the Washington Post website published several articles detailing the high failure rates of high school students on Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) final exams, especially on the math exams. Rockville High School's Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) president Dylan Presman first revealed the issue in late April, bringing the issue a lot of attention from Montgomery County parents, teachers and administrators. According to the Washington Post article, nearly 16,000 out of 30,000 students in seven math courses failed their final exams in January. Failure rates were as high as 86 percent for Bridge to Algebra 2, and 61 percent and 62 percent for Algebra 1 and Geometry, respectively. It is clear that something is wrong, especially for a school system that is supposedly one of the top school districts in the country.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr created two work groups to consider the numerous factors that may have contributed to the high failure rates. Some of the reasons suggested included problems with how students are being taught and with the alignment between the curriculum and the final exam. However, these should not have been much of a problem since many people, including several students at Blair, say the review packets the county gives are very similar to the final exam itself. That means, if people feel like they have not learned what is on the review packet, they can always ask their teacher for clarification. The Poolesville High School Math Department stated that the real problem lies in the grading policies used by MCPS.

It is universally acknowledged that many Montgomery County students often take advantage of how semester grades are calculated and do not study very much for exams where their grade is already set in stone. At the moment, quarter grades are each worth 37.5 percent of the overall semester grade, while final exams are only worth 25 percent. Every student is familiar with the chart used to give semester grades, that shows that these grades are only calculated based on the letter grade a student receives, not the actual percentage. This means that someone who has a 90 percent first quarter, 90 percent second quarter and 70 percent final exam grade will obtain an A for the semester because they went AAC. On the chart they got an A, even though percentage-wise they only got 85 percent overall. Many students use this to their benefit, and do not study as much as they should.

Also, on this chart there are only four ways to get an E for the semester out of the 125 grade scenarios, meaning that while many people fail their final exams, they will still pass the class and move on to the next level. This is a problem since the final exam is a good indicator of overall how much a student has learned throughout the class and shows how much of the concepts they will retain at the next level.

Many people are able to do fairly well during the quarters, which allow them to even out their final exam grade due to easy completion grades that many teachers give. MCPS policy also requires teachers to give a minimum grade of 50% to students on assessments if they have tried, and also gives students an opportunity to reassess it. Also, many people are able to remember concepts and pass tests on them just after learning them but do not remember them for the long run. This is a big problem in math especially because each level builds on prior knowledge.

It is troubling to see that though there are such high final exam failure rates, the course failure rates are much lower with only 12 percent failing Algebra 2 and 16 percent failing Geometry. This means that many of the people who fail the final exams pass the class, even if they have not fully learned all the material. This will not be beneficial to them as they continue to advance through math and will also set them up for failure after high school.

There are many ways MCPS can change its grading policy in order to make sure that students do not fail their tests. They can change semester grade calculations from using letter grades to percentages, and also change the weight of the final exam which would motivate students to try harder to get a good grade on the final. This makes sure that students who are not ready to move on to the next course will not. If it wants to lower the failure of rates on final exams, MCPS must focus on changing its grading policy to one that is more effective.

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  • Blaaaaaazeeeeeerrrsssss!! on July 29, 2013 at 12:26 PM
    ha, mcps does not want the graduation rate to fall either!
  • Time's Eyes on July 31, 2013 at 3:08 PM
    This is sad. Why can't students just learn and not worry about their grades? If there are indeed students like this, please speak up and make yourselves heard! I'm saying this because I was a student myself some long time ago. If you just simply learn, the grades will work out for you. They may not be perfect, but hey, nobody's perfect. I'll tell you it's the American culture, entitlement beliefs, this modern society that keeps you gunning for the money, the "points that count." But friends, let's not forget the true purpose of school. Let's not make a mess while we can. Decades will pass and you'll know its true meaning. You'll regret - oh, it'll be fine for you with your family and job, but it won't look pretty for the state of your children's education, it won't. It all starts inside you, your choice for the road less traveled. The people may call it cheesy, bringing forth no appreciation. But they won't know; they'll be out of the system before anyone realizes what they've done. Oh, students of America, you still have a fighting chance in this world; now go and show what you've got left.
  • Alumnus on July 31, 2013 at 6:56 PM
    It doesn't much matter if people are failing the final exams in the majority of our math courses, because the material on the exams (and in the courses) is not actually math. Have you seen the garbage that passes for geometry? Trumped-up vocabulary memorization. I wonder what fraction of students come out of MCPS geometry with the ability to write a proof that would receive any credit at all in an undergraduate math course? I know I didn't, and it wasn't for lack of aptitude.

    Trying to change the grading policy or whatever when the majority of the curriculum is fundamentally broken is rearranging deck chairs on the titanic.

    It is also worth noting that multiple-choice math tests are a blight to be eradicated. If you want a good test, put in the resources to grade it. End of story. Multiple choice math tests are worth less than the damn paper they're printed on.

    It is a sad reflection on the state of our math education when we see all this worry over low pass rates on final exams when the situation would be nearly as dreadful even were the pass rate near-perfect.
  • MagnetBlazer (View Email) on June 21, 2014 at 10:31 AM
    @Time's Eyes

    You are absolutely ignorant! Why would any student give a damn about what they learn?? It is pointless to just focus on learning because what they learn is garbage that they will forget over the summer or will never use. Meanwhile, the grade is important. The grade will be the only thing that students carry with them from the course. It will determine what college they go to, what life they have, and ultimately their happiness in life...
  • 4vnu (View Email) on August 21, 2015 at 2:17 AM
    Really Loved This One.. I'm making my skills to grow everyday for best results in exams and your post helped a lot. Regards
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