Montgomery County Public Schools’ Central Administrators Losing Credibility
A wave of controversy has greeted recently released Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) data showing failure rates on countywide final exams of 61% for Algebra 1, 62% in geometry, 57% in Algebra 2, 48% in precalculus. All combined, about 11,000 students did not pass their math final last semester in those classes out of slightly more than 19,000 who took the finals. (To be sure, fewer students actually failed these courses for the year because grades from earlier in the semester are used to raise their “final” grades.)
How the data became publicly available is instructive, because normally final exam pass/fail rates are not released by MCPS. It was only released after being leaked by an unnamed school official to the PTSA president at Rockville High School, who in turn made it available to the media.
As the story evolves, in turns out that this issue has gone unaddressed for years. According to a recently released 2004 report by MCPS’s Office of Shared Accountability, close to half of high school students taking grade-level courses such as algebra, geometry and biology failed their first semester exam that school year.
Closer scrutiny to the data indicates that students enrolled in the school system’s free and reduced-priced meals program, or low-income students, are least likely to pass their finals, compared with students of all subgroups. Black and Hispanic students are failing both their exams and their courses at a higher rate than the majority of students.
Back in 2007, the late Republican activist Joe Russek shared with me his exchange of communication with the MCPS’s Office of Shared Accountability, as a result of his freedom of information requests trying to get test results by school and percentile. Not surprising to anyone familiar with MCPS bureaucracy, he was stonewalled. I am sorry that Joe did not live long enough to see his suspicions about MCPS’s data vindicated.
The disclosure raises many questions, especially the competence of MCPS’s central administration.
Considering that MCPS receives a budget of $15,421 per pupil, compared with a national average of $10,560, they cannot claim a lack of resources. So why has the math curriculum and the countywide tests used to measure competence been so misaligned for so long? And why have MCPS bureaucrats been hiding these results? MCPS declined to apply for Federal funds under the “Race to the Top” initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2009 because it would have had to have a system treating measurable student achievement as a “significant component” in teacher evaluation. The Maryland State Department of Education has also rejected MCPS’ teacher-evaluation proposals because it did not conform with state law and federal education reforms requirements that student standardized test performance be used as a more significant factor in designing teacher-evaluation programs.
Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr has been continually railed against using student testing to monitor educator performance. In December, he said that the country (the country, not county) needed a three-year moratorium on standardized testing and we needed to “stop the insanity” of evaluating teachers according to student test scores.
Starr’s opposition to more accountability is disputed by a leading authority on teacher evaluation at the University of Colorado, Marcus Winters. He says that school systems can use test scores in teacher evaluations very carefully to eliminate concerns about the difficulty of raising test scores among students with low grades by accounting for overall improvement.
“When these models are done, the entire idea is to measure the teacher’s contribution to student test scores,” Winters said in a phone interview with the Walt Whitman HS’s Black & White. “We account for the prior achievement the student brings into the class.”
Superintendent Joshua Starr’s stock response to questions of educational accountability is “Just trust us, we are the Montgomery County Schools.” Yet while MCPS clings to its “command and control, top down educational model,” educational reform elsewhere in the country are focused on a broader range of educational approaches, more choice and more accountability for results.
Starr’s refusal to accept more accountability has worn thin. To borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan, we need to “Trust, but Verify.”
Mark Uncapher Montgomery County Republican Chairman