Superintendent Proposes Plan to Improve Math Performance

June 13, 2014
Board of Education to receive update from work group that studied math exam performance

Superintendent of Schools Joshua P. Starr is proposing a five-point plan to improve student performance in mathematics and address long-standing achievement gaps in this subject.

Dr. Starr will discuss his plan with the Montgomery County Board of Education on Tuesday (June 17, 2014) which responds to the findings of a work group that has been studying the issue of student performance on countywide mathematics exams.  The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Semester Exam Work Group began meeting a year ago and included parents, teachers, principals, administrators, community members, and others. Dr. Starr asked the group to explore factors contributing to student performance on high school countywide semester mathematics exams and make recommendations for his consideration.

The work group explored issues and made recommendations in several key areas—curriculum alignment and exam content; maximizing instructional time; course readiness, options, and placement; formative assessments; and purpose and weight of final exams.

“I appreciate the thorough and deliberative work of the Math Semester Exam Work Group and the thoughtful recommendations they have brought forward,” Dr. Starr said. “The report shows that there is no single factor responsible for high rates of failure on exams and there will not be one single strategy to improve student performance.”

“I believe that MCPS does a good job of math instruction, but there is certainly room for improvement,” Dr. Starr said. “I look forward to discussing my plan with the Board of Education as we seek to ensure our students are developing the mathematics skills and knowledge they need to be successful.”

Five-point Plan

Dr. Starr said work has been done throughout this school year to address concerns about math performance and to narrow achievement gaps. In continuation of that work, Dr. Starr is introducing his five-point plan that enhances and supports the recommendations of the work group to improve student understanding and performance in mathematics. Some of these recommendations will need to be funded in future budgets, beginning with Fiscal Year (FY) 2016.

Starting math success early—Expansion of math content expertise at the elementary level: The work group recognized the importance of building a strong foundation in number sense and an appreciation for mathematics at an early age. Math content coaches work with teachers and target elementary school students who are struggling in mathematics. Currently, less than one-third of MCPS elementary schools have math content coaches. Dr. Starr‘s plan includes a targeted expansion of math content coaches over the next several budget cycles.  

Breaking the cycle of failure—Reconsideration of secondary articulation policies: The work group report showed that middle school students who earn a D or fail math courses are frequently moved to the next course despite not showing proficiency. Such practices can hinder a student’s future success in mathematics and lead to poor performance in classes and on exams. Staff will review and recommend changes to articulation practices and policies to the Board of Education’s Policy Management Committee by the end of the year to ensure the district is not creating a cycle of failure for some students.

Targeted support for students struggling in math—Development of diagnostic instructional tools and interventions: The work group found that students who earn low marks each quarter are far more likely to do poorly on the exams. In response, MCPS staff will identify and implement various methods, products, and models that will give teachers real-time information about the specific strengths and weaknesses of each individual student. These models will be aligned to the Common Core State Standards and will help teachers provide timely, comprehensive interventions that allow students to develop a deep understanding of mathematics.

Building staff capacity—Create professional development to reach the student struggling in mathematics: Professional development was a key consideration of the work group. Over the past four years, much of the professional development in mathematics has been focused on curriculum and assessment shifts related to the Common Core State Standards. Intensive professional development is needed to help teachers learn how to support a student who is consistently struggling in mathematics.

Leveraging the expertise of our best teachers—Crowdsource a library of student and teacher resources: Students and teachers reported that the limited time to review math concepts was a contributing factor to poor exam performance. Twenty-first century technology provides the opportunity to “crowdsource” student and teacher reviews, screencasts, and solutions to math concepts. MCPS will create an online library of student and teacher resources organized around the exam reviews to assist students in studying for final exams.

Work Group Findings and Recommendations

Dr. Starr created the Semester Exam Work Group after concerns were raised by the community about high failure rates on some countywide semester exams in mathematics. The highest failure rates were among high school students taking non-honors-level mathematics classes. While the failure rates were high on some of the exams, a majority of students were passing the classes. For instance, in the second semester of the 2012-2013 school year, 32 percent of high school students passed the  Algebra 1 exam, but 80 percent passed the class.

Among the findings of the work group are:

·  The semester exams are generally well-aligned to the curriculum and test what is taught in class. This was confirmed in survey results—just 11.6 percent of high school students indicated that the exam did not measure what was taught in class, and only 2 percent of teachers surveyed said the exams were not aligned to the written curriculum.
·  Preparation is perceived to be a significant factor in student performance—more than one-third of high school students (34.9 percent) said they did not adequately prepare for the exams; 36.3 percent said they didn’t think they had to study much; and 37 percent said they needed more help to prepare. Among teachers, 27 percent said students choose not to adequately prepare for semester exams, and 18 percent indicated students do not know how to prepare for the exams.
·  Many teachers indicated that system grade calculations play a role in exam performance. Some students know whether exam performance will or will not change their grade and prepare accordingly. The work group also noted that middle school students who take high school math classes have to pass the semester exams in order to receive credit, and they perform very well. However, high school students do not have to pass the exam in order to pass the class.  

The work group made several recommendations in each of the five areas it reviewed, many of which are addressed directly in Dr. Starr’s five-point plan.  Other recommendations from the work group are already in process and will be implemented next year, and several will require input from the Board of Education Policy Management Committee or final results of the first PARCC high school course assessments.  Among the other recommendations are:

·  Provide alternative supports for students struggling with mathematics in middle school or struggling to complete Algebra 1 in high school;
·  Expand and improve the use of formative assessments, which are given throughout the year, as a way to identify students who are struggling and provide timely support;
·  Consider exempting students from countywide semester exams in courses where there is a statewide assessment—such as the new state exams (PARCC)—as is done with Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses; and 
·  Review the impact of current grading practices and the impact that final exams have on final grades. 

Read Dr. Starr's recommendation and the work group report

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