Tuesday, July 1, 2014

MCPS Algebra 1B Failures: "I am surprised that you [Starr and BOE] appear surprised"

To Superintendent Joshua Starr and the Montgomery County Board of Education:

I am writing to express my concerns for how MCPS is handling the spring failures in Algebra 1B and the system’s plans for supporting our students in the future. I have spent so much time on this issue that I believe it’s important for me to write, especially since I believe my suggestions can make a difference.

First, I am unfortunately not surprised by our student’s performance on the exams. But I am surprised that you appear surprised (using the word “discovered” in your public announcement). And I’m concerned with how you are handling the test results. MCPS knew in March, 2014 that:

  • Our teachers had struggled from a lack of staff development as they rolled out our new CS 2.0 curriculum, and we were introducing a new Algebra curriculum;
  • The math assessment work group was reviewing the difference between the results of a teacher survey and a focus group with successful teachers, and talking about the need for additional staff development devoted to improving assessment skills;
  • The President of the Board of Education was alerting MSDE that significant instructional time would be lost due to the requirement to give the MSA and HSA to students, since both included material no longer part of the CS 2.0 curriculum.
  • It was still cold and we were regularly closing school because of snow.

In essence, MCPS knew in March that our time-stressed teachers would have LESS time to teach a new curriculum. Why then did central administration staff not reach out to all of the teachers of Algebra 1B and find out how much of the curriculum they would be unable to teach? If MCPS had surveyed the staff to understand what part of the curriculum was not going to be taught to Algebra 1B students, the end-of-year assessment could have been adjusted to reflect only the material that was taught, and the children would have had a chance to take a test that was consistent with what they learned. Alternatively, to ensure that the test results accurately reflected what students learned in the spring, MCPS could have eliminated the questions that covered untaught material from the test and re-scored the exams. Both of these alternatives allow the results of the exams to reflect individual student achievement. Adding 15% to all test scores doesn’t. That trick merely re-aligns the average failure rate with our previous failure rate. I can think of no other reason that explains the 15%. If there is one, I’d love to hear it.

Of course, we can’t go back, we can only go forward. I’m very concerned that you will be able to get every child that took Algebra 1B this past year into summer school - free or not. I certainly hope that you have identified a tracking mechanism to identify which children will be attending school and which won’t. That should enable you to follow-up and determine the impact of the system’s teaching of this year’s version of Algebra 1, both the complete version and the incomplete version, versus last year’s version of the course versus next year’s version. Each cohort may require unique supports to keep them on track towards successful completion of our high school math objectives.

I also hope you will reconsider moving the untaught Algebra 1B units into Geometry. When we examined the causes for math assessment failures in Geometry, some of the reasons pertained to that particular subject material. The course is already chock full of a wide variety of difficult subject matter. I believe it would be far wiser to move the material not taught in Algebra 1B to Algebra 2A. It wouldn’t hurt for all students to get the additional review of the material, even those who did get the chance to learn the material the first time around (something we learned from that study group with our best teachers).

I hope you will do a complete review of both the winter and spring Algebra assessments with some of our best Algebra teachers and math resource specialists in middle and high school, as recommended by the math assessment work group. While it’s beneficial for our system to have one assessment used across the system, it’s critical that our teachers and math resource specialists have a voice in their design. That way we can ensure that we’re truly using the best assessment instruments for our children.

Finally, I hope you will recognize that staff development is not a nicety, it’s essential. MCPS has to stop rolling out new curriculum without it. It’s essential for our teachers. It’s essential for our students.

I remain willing to support MCPS in ensuring our children have the best education.


Merry Eisner-Heidorn


  1. It doesn't seem to me that anyone ever addresses what I think is a major failure not of these kids, but of the grading rubric. Has anyone considered that some of these kids fail on purpose? Or at least that they don't bother trying to pass? The grading rubric (http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/schools/blakehs/staff/finalgradecalc.pdf) makes it so that the grade on the final doesn't really affect the overall grade. Take, for example, an average student - one who got Cs in both the first and the second semester. He'd have to get an A on the final to affect his overall course grade. If he's relatively sure that's not going to happen, he can get a B on the final or he can fail it and the overall course grade won't change. So why in the world would he care what his grade is on the final? Set up the grading so that your final doesn't matter and you set yourself up for a high failure rate.

  2. 1974 "The Seven-Percent-Solution" (novel) by Nicolas Meyers

    2014 "The Fifteen-Percent-Solution"(really novel) by Dr. Joshua Starr

  3. Where is our 'superintendent?' Crises and disasters are flying, yet he is nowhere to be seen. Maybe he is busy working at the other job his contract allows, thanks to the Board of Education members and their attorneys who signed off on his contract.

    1. Benjamin P JohnsonAugust 26, 2014 at 3:16 PM

      As a math tutor, teacher and consultant, I can say that if you wait for changes from the school system,you will be in trouble. Get your children outside help in math or else their high school transcripts will be compromised. Their chances for good colleges will be slim.Expect nothing from the school system.Save your children and get them outside help.


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