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Top district lets average kids lag behind

By Jay Mathews

The SAT and Advanced Placement results put out so proudly by the Montgomery County school system suggest that it is among the best districts in the country, but that country has seen no significant increase in math or reading achievement for 17-year-olds in 30 years.

Dan Stephens, who teaches math at Northwood High School, thinks he knows why. It is a reason I have never heard before from his renowned district.

The most prevalent complaint, buttressed by the new documentary “Race to Nowhere” being shown in Montgomery County, is that teachers and principals put too much pressure on the kids. They are jittery, sleep-deprived, maybe suicidal.

Stephens, who teaches Precalculus and Geometry to mostly average kids, thinks his students are the opposite of too stressed. They don’t try very hard and know they will still graduate, so no problem.

“All I can do is beg my students to study. Ultimately, they know they don’t have to and don’t,” said Stephens, who has taught for 20 years. “I would guess fewer than a handful actually studied for their test last week. No joke.”

Among the most important reasons for that, Stephens says, are the countywide final examinations in core subjects such English, social studies, science and math. They are important two-hour tests, written not by Stephens or other individual classroom teachers but by county experts. They are “kept locked and sealed until the day we give them,” Stephens said, “and we must sign documents, under penalty of dismissal, promising not to assist students in any way.”

And yet a student who flunks one of those exams is usually promoted to the next grade, and the next level course, as if that hard work writing and protecting the exams meant nothing.

“The majority of my precalculus students have never passed one of these exams in either Algebra 1, Geometry or Algebra 2, all Precalculus prerequisites,” Stephens said. “Nevertheless, they proceeded to the next level. ... Students are well aware that failure, even pathetic failure, will not prevent them from going on to the next level. Most of my students have failed multiple final exams in other subjects as well, but they still earned credit for those classes.”

In Montgomery County, any good faith effort on regular assignments or tests earns at least 50 percent, no matter how much is wrong with the work. The lowest passing grade is 60 percent, a D. If you turn it in, usually you pass, Stephens said, even if you don't understand it very well.

Accustomed to flunking final exams without serious consequences — at least if they are among the many with no desire to get into a competitive college and thus no need for an A — Stephens’s students have little to motivate them, and act like it, he said.

“They’re smart, shrewd kids who will do the minimum to get by,” he said. “They also know teachers who fail too many students find themselves under scrutiny and are unwelcome.”

Supervisors have data chats with teachers and make clear that there should not be too many E’s and D’s, Stephens said. He said the commitment to mediocrity means weaker students are being urged to take the less-stressful ACT college entrance test, instead of the SAT.

His solution is simple: If students don’t get at least 50 percent on their countywide final, they should have to retake the course. “This would go a long way to improving our true objective, which is to teach kids and have them actually learn,” said Stephens, who can be reached at dan@toadmail.com. “It would also dramatically change the culture of the school and put the pressure on the students, where it should be.”

The only reason he contacted me, he said, was a growing sense that teachers are being blamed for lax student performance, when the fault is a whatever culture nourished by district grading rules.

County schools spokesman Dana Tofig indicated that no changes in those rules are contemplated. He said the rise of ACT test-taking is a national trend, unaffected by any individual district culture. But he also confirmed that teachers may not assess the final exam as any more than 25 percent of the final grade.

“Using final examinations as a gateway to promotion is not an effective strategy in making sure our students are prepared for the next grade and are on a track to college-and-career readiness,” Tofig said.

So what will motivate students not lusting after Johns Hopkins? Most U.S. high schools let average kids slip through without learning much, as the three decades of no improvement show. If a district as strong and celebrated as Montgomery County can’t get tough, who can?

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | November 14, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Dan Stephens, Dana Tofig, Montgomery County schools, county says this won't work, countywide final exams, he suggests making them retake the course if final test grade is less than 50 percent, teachers says study flunk county final but still pass the course, what will?  
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Comments

Well, DUH! Seriously, Jay? You kill me. Never heard that reason before? Teachers have known for years that standards are being lowered across the board everywhere. Inner city, suburban, high income, low income ... everywhere. The problem is that teachers can't do anything about it. Lowering the standard is what the superintendents at urban school districts are doing right now - prodding their principals to do it, firing teachers who won't. At my hs, the principal removed an AP government teacher from the class the year after the teacher refused to give INC to some seniors who didn't earn a passing grade. He was one of the more successful AP teachers in the district, and the AP scores have fallen. No one's made over a 2 since he was removed.
Please tell us something we don't know.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 14, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

"He said the commitment to mediocrity means weaker students are being urged to take the less-stressful ACT college entrance test, instead of the SAT. "

Um. What? The teacher's an idiot for saying this, and Jay, shame on you for repeating it without challenge. And the spokesperson is exactly right. What moron thinks the ACT is easier than the SAT?

It's standard policy for schools to limit the weight of the final, so I don't see what you're so fussed about.

I wrote an op ed piece arguing that students should not be allowed to pass the course if they don't pass the state test in that subject--but that was because I knew that close to 45% of all students fail the high school math tests (in California, at least) and that it would rapidly prove how foolish it is to force kids to take advanced courses.

Teachers are going to pass students even if they aren't solid in the subject matter, Jay, so long as the students have no choice but to take courses that are way too difficult and have no other options. To do otherwise would be cruel.

Finally, this is all a bit rich coming from you, the advocate of near-illiterates taking AP courses for the experience, even if they don't learn a thing.

Or are you saying that teachers should fail all those AP kids who take courses that they don't understand--and fail them if they don't pass, as this teacher advocates?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 14, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

Kids fail at our school and don't graduate. I think the kids at that school are not "smart and shrewd" because they aren't savvy enough to understand that they are the losers in the equation you described. And undoubtedly the classes are diminished to the extent that the kids don't care. What is the motivation for a teacher to teach in that environment, the big paycheck?

Posted by: Hrod1 | November 14, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

50% to move on to the next level is absurd. The tests should be more incremental and if you don't get 90% you should be stuck into something until you do. If a subject isn't worth learning, it shouldn't be taught.

Posted by: staticvars | November 15, 2010 1:13 AM | Report abuse

"He said the commitment to mediocrity means weaker students are being urged to take the less-stressful ACT college entrance test, instead of the SAT. "

Um. What? The teacher's an idiot for saying this, and Jay, shame on you for repeating it without challenge. And the spokesperson is exactly right. What moron thinks the ACT is easier than the SAT?

It's standard policy for schools to limit the weight of the final, so I don't see what you're so fussed about.

I wrote an op ed piece arguing that students should not be allowed to pass the course if they don't pass the state test in that subject--but that was because I knew that close to 45% of all students fail the high school math tests (in California, at least) and that it would rapidly prove how foolish it is to force kids to take advanced courses.

Teachers are going to pass students even if they aren't solid in the subject matter, Jay, so long as the students have no choice but to take courses that are way too difficult and have no other options. To do otherwise would be cruel.

Finally, this is all a bit rich coming from you, the advocate of near-illiterates taking AP courses for the experience, even if they don't learn a thing.

Or are you saying that teachers should fail all those AP kids who take courses that they don't understand--and fail them if they don't pass, as this teacher advocates?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 15, 2010 3:54 AM | Report abuse

Sorry for the double post--for some reason, the last post didn't clear from my browser.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 15, 2010 4:02 AM | Report abuse

We are always looking for a scapegoat. If it's not the teachers it must be the students. If not the students then the families.

If students have to STUDY for a test, is it possible they didn't really learn the content? If we teach in ways that are meaningful and engaging students will retain information without a need to study. If they have to study for a test do we really think they will remember that information a month later?

Is it possible we should consider the content we are teaching? I taught fourth and fifth graders things I had to relearn every year because it wasn't information I just knew. Maybe it wasn't information they needed to memorize either.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 15, 2010 6:27 AM | Report abuse

How common is it that students failing the final are passed anyway? I've never heard of the final exam being so meaningless. Is this something you find just in Montgomery County or is it more widespread?

Regarding Hrod1's comment -- most high school students are notoriously short-sighted in their objectives. A smart, savvy kid will look at what they need to do to get by -- not what is best for them long term. It is a hazard of adolescence.

Posted by: EduCrazy | November 15, 2010 6:34 AM | Report abuse

Remember, Mont. County requires teachers to give 50% to a student on any assignment they hand in, no matter how poorly done.

Because of this, it is almost impossible to fail a class, even with a pathetically poor final exam, because their grades have been so inflated over the course of the year.

However, since students failing a course would hurt graduation rates, we don't want students being given the failing marks they may deserve.

This is not about education, it is about making the numbers look good.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | November 15, 2010 7:24 AM | Report abuse

My guess (couldn't find any evidence) is that most math teachers in moco are required to have 10% or so of the grade based on "class participation"... this, combined with the automatic 50% for all Es, probably means that getting a D on half of your homework and quizzes will be enough to pass any math class.

Even average students aren't dumb... they know that showing up to class daily is going to be enough to get them the D they want, so why try harder?

What the school systems won't admit is the huge number of students that are OK with a D.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 15, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

"The only reason he contacted me, he said, was a growing sense that teachers are being blamed for lax student performance, when the fault is a whatever culture nourished by district grading rules."
--

Someone's sense seems to be growing at an alarmingly s l o w rate.

How is little Johnny supposed to squeeze in education between texts...?

Posted by: gpsman | November 15, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I wish it were possible or practical to educate kids in much smaller groups - like groups of 5 or so - so they'd truly learn the material in depth and feel accountable. Maybe this will be possible at some point in the future with online resources - obviously it isn't remotely possible or cost-effective now. I think it's too easy for a kid to slack off in a class of 30, and it's hard for a teacher to keep track of each kid's exact progress. Yes, it's the parents' and kids' responsibility also. I'm a huge public school supporter, but as the parent of three kids who do well in school, I don't feel that schools as we know them are truly designed to teach the academic material that we assume our kids are internalizing.

Posted by: KrisVA | November 15, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

"In Montgomery County, any good faith effort on regular assignments or tests earns at least 50 percent, no matter how much is wrong with the work. The lowest passing grade is 60 percent, a D."

Unbelievable. There's no such thing as failure in Montgomery County, everyone's a winner, eh?

This is the equivalent of calling in sick two days a week, every week and still getting a raise in salary.

And now Jay should learn why it is important to attend Board of Education meetings. It is at the Board level that this sort of lame educational policy must be changed. Social promotions were eliminated years ago in NY. Who knew MD was so backwards!

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 15, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Montgomery County is singularly focused on one thing - closing the achievement gap. How have they chosen to do that?? By lowering standards across the board, teaching to the lowest common denominator, and holding higher achieving students at a constant. Sad!

Posted by: mgmurphy1 | November 15, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

A bit of a disjointed, rambling article.

1. The MCPS grading policy changed in 2005. The Post's Extra Credit column wrote about this change.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A57430-2005Feb2.html

A 5 year old change doesn't account for a 30 year pattern.

2. Jay, you say Superintendent Jerry Weast is "data-driven," so where's the data in this piece?
Give Jerry a call and get the final exams scores by course and make them public. Taxpayers are paying for these exams, let's see what we get for the investment!

3. Agree with comments above about AP exams - you, Jay, have been pushing these for years without regard to the ability of students to be successful. You have been more than happy to see students pushed into these courses before they were ready. You have been more than happy to credit a school and call it "renowned" even if students weren't successful in AP classes but were just sitting in them. You have been a proponent of the same "50% rule" for AP classes.

MCPS doesn't have to "get tough" because people like you, Jay Mathews have been heaping praise on them while indicators like the graduation rate and Montgomery College remediation numbers showed otherwise.

As long as Jerry Weast could crow about the Jay Mathew's/Newsweek ranking he didn't have to face the music.

MCPS is the school system that you have lauded, Jay. This is what you wanted.

Posted by: jzsartucci | November 15, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

JZSartucci -

Bravo! Well said!

And now that Newsweek will no longer carry Jay's Race to the Bottom rankings, maybe SOME of these so called administrators will get past the PR pablum.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 15, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

for jzsartucci---One of the advantages of AP is that I can report each year what percentage of kids are passing those exams. I wish we got the same data so easily on the countywide finals. I will ask yr good question and hope they respond, because I am returning to this topic next Monday, and including some of what we learned from Donna St. George's A1 story yesterday about Fs at West Potomac High in Fairfax.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 15, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

For lisamc31---I don't think moving the list from Newsweek.com to washingtonpost.com is going to solve the problem you perceive. washingtonpost.com has twice as many readers at newsweek.com, particularly in this area. And remember I do a list of all public high schools in the Washington area every January for the Post.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 15, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

My opinion is that the courses are difficult.

There has been the idea in educational circles for the last 30 years that if a student fails, it is really the teacher who failed.

There is pressure to not have a lot of "E"'s. Students know this and there are those who take advantage of the popular idea that it is the teachers' fault if they fail.

There needs to be a return to the idea that the student is responsible for his or her own learning. I don't mean entirely responsible, the teacher is being paid to teach. But some students are getting the wrong idea. Passing with a D is really failing, because they haven't learned the basic material and the next course will be harder.

Administrators have to realize that difficult courses like math and foreign language are going to need teaching assistants to help individual students during class or school wide after school homework clubs. I have seen these aids provided in math and not in foreign languages.

Difficult material and a fast pace challenge good students. Some students need extra help or they will not keep up. They get lost and passing them forward is not the answer, because the same thing happens again and again.

The idea that enrolling in AP or higher level courses is enough is ridiculous. Maybe some students have to fail and retake a course so the concepts become clear. Parents who blame teachers for failing grades are adding to the problem.

The question is not, "Who is to blame?"
The question is "Do you understand the material in this class?"

These tests show pretty well if a student has mastered basic concepts. A score of 60 shows that the student understood almost nothing. They should retake the course, study more and then they will be ready for the next course.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 15, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

My understanding is that the grading system in Montgomery County is on a scale from 50-100. So a student who actually gets a 2 out of 10 on a quiz receives a 50, the lowest grade.

On county exams however, a student who gets below a 60%, fails.

That is how I understood the grading system in MoCo. I taught high school courses to middle school students.

Is it true that at the high school level a student cannot fail? Or do you mean that since a "60" is a passing grade a student can go on to an even more difficult course without the prerequisite skills?

Posted by: celestun100 | November 15, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

You don't think having your "List" relegated to WAPO is going to decrease its "prestige" amongst phony educators who like to point to "national rankings" for their fame and glory? Seriously? No, my Progressive friend. Expect all those schools who proudly boasted their standing on your List to now refer to U.S. News & World Reports (if they even make that list). It's okay - you can go have a drink now. I know that zing hurt. Without a glossy cover, these shallow, publicity seeking administrators will drop you like a hot potato.

And what's this nonsense about "reporting how many kids pass AP exams each year"? Your ranking system has nothing to do with passing IB or AP exams, unless you are referring to your EE index, which really, most people don't even pay attention to.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 15, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Just to clarify my position. Enrolling in AP courses is actually supposed to be good for students. They get a taste for what is required at the college level. I just don't think schools should stop there. There should be extra help given to struggling students. I think Montgomery County did a lot of that when I was there, at least in courses that were tested on the MSA. If a course is not tested, really, all the attention and funds are going towards the standardized tests.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 15, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I teach at a middle school in Howard County and we have the same issues. We "retained" a quarter of the students we should have, but getting mostly D's was enough to move on to the next grade. These students will only struggle next year and the year after until the drop out of high school. These students came to middle school with large deficiencies and they will leave with even larger ones.

But what do you do with them to hold them accountable? Fail them until the pass? Would you want 16 year olds in the same class as 12 year olds? There are not enough resources to put those children in special "tracks" to help them catch up. I don't see my school doing much with these kids, nor did the elementary schools and, by the time they get to high school, it's usually too late to reach them.

There needs to be much more rigorous policies about promoting students all through elementary and middle school so that every student is prepared for high school. But I don't know how to resolve the issue of what to do with those children who continue to fail. And I don't hear HCPSS school board talking about it. (But I guess HCPSS doesn't have students who fail.)

Posted by: limnetic792 | November 15, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse


It is significant that the story features a math teacher. I have a child in Precalc in MCPS this year.

This cohort of kids is flunking higher math because of weak MCPS math curriculum in elementary school. I cried and begged and pleaded with our elementary school to teach multiplication tables. I was told parents should do it at home. I suggested ways of helping kids learn times tables (painting them on stair risers, hip-hop chanting contests). I was told parents should organize and fund these efforts. I pointed out that outsourcing times tables to parents would widen the achievement gap. The response was to hyperaccelerate a lot of ill-prepared kids.

My kid works hard, fails the finals, passes the courses. When I try to move her out of Honors (two years in a row) the teachers fight back and tell me she's at the top of the class, despite failing tests! Parents tell me failing the MCPS math finals is standard--among motivated, hard-working kids. The issue is not that they don't care, or that the standards are too low. The issue is that the math curriculum K-8 has been lousy and these kids are all foundering. The Math Working Group has now "discovered" this. Did it include data on countywide finals?? The weak underpinnings and hyperacceleration will now get fixed I guess, but a whole generation was crippled.

Posted by: SusanKatzMiller | November 15, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

SusanKatzMiller,

Great observation and one that is not unique to MCPS. Here in New York, as long as 20 years ago when my son was in 3rd grade, teachers stopped teaching multiplication tables. NYS also made teaching standard English measurements, optional. As a result, students going on to MS couldn't tell you how many inches there are in a yard or what 6 x 12 is without a calculator. That's the other thing - public school math teachers rely WAY too much on calculators. Then the kids get to MS and the teachers, astounded, are like, "What do you MEAN you don't know your multiplication tables?"

You see, the task of MEMORIZING multiplication tables is viewed as BAD. Rote memorization is BAD. Facts are BAD. By shifting this "job" to the parents' shoulders, our public servants can divest themselves of all responsibility for the children's deficient state of knowledge and weak foundation. It was the parent's fault they didn't teach them those mundane and picayune tasks which are so beneath a teacher's pay-scale. It's much more important for students to express how they "feel" about math, than to actually compute it. {heavy sarcasm}

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 15, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

lisamc31,

Your anger at teacher's is misguided. Teachers don't get to decide what to teach. The decision to stop teaching multiplication tables was a decision made by someone above the teacher's pay grade. Probably someone with very little experience actually teaching. Probably a board made up of political hacks on their way to a higher political office.

This happens in English class too. Some counties have "forbidden" English teachers from teaching grammar and/or spelling. Why? Because its not on the Standardized tests.

Posted by: limnetic792 | November 15, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

lisamc31,

Your anger at teacher's is misguided. Teachers don't get to decide what to teach. The decision to stop teaching multiplication tables was a decision made by someone above the teacher's pay grade. Probably someone with very little experience actually teaching. Probably a board made up of political hacks on their way to a higher political office.

This happens in English class too. Some counties have "forbidden" English teachers from teaching grammar and/or spelling. Why? Because its not on the standardized tests.

Posted by: limnetic792 | November 15, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

For SusanKatzMiller---Please email me at mathewsj@washpost.com and let me know if I may quote you by name.

For lisamc31---Its a national Web site, and you missed the fact that the list has not been in the actual Newsweek magazine--not on the cover, not mentioned anywhere--for the last two years, ever since they changed the format of the mag to that of the economist. And yet the most recent version of the list got 21 million hits in the first week, three times what it got in a year the year before. It now lives on the Web, like most readers do. I am shocked that you didn't notice this, that one part of yr brain is stuck in the old era of dead trees, since you yourself live on the Web as Ms. TruthaboutIB.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 15, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Also for lisamc31---I was talking about the equity and excellence percentage. It tells you how many seniors have a passing score on AP, not something we are told so far about countywide exams. I think more and more people are looking at it, and seeing its importance. It takes time getting used to new forms of data. It took several years for many people to notice the Challenge Index, and figure out it was not rating schools by test scores, the way they were used to.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 15, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

21 million hits in a week huh? Please have Jodie e-mail me the site stat report for that week, will ya? How does WAPO count its hits? By unique visitor? Or per page? Forgive me if I have trouble believing your List generates the same interest as Matt Drudge's Drudge Report.

And yes, if you read back I said you probably meant your EE rating. Gee, Jay. Why is it when it comes to discussing pass rates, you only mention AP and not IB?

limnetic792-

No one is holding a gun to the heads of elementary teachers forbidding them from teaching the multiplication tables. If you want me to redirect my anger, then I will happily cast it towards the NCTM, the NEA and the AFT. Better? ;-)

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 15, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

For lisamc31---By hits I meant page views, and i am afraid that is the extent of my contribution to this discussion. You have proven to be a true Web person my knowing what unique visitors and that other stuff means. I don't. I just know it was the most hits newsweek.com ever got on any one feature.
As for EE and AP. Only the AP folk calculate EE for their schools (and, sadly, dont do a great job of it.) I have to ask IB people to try to do it for me, using 4 as a passing score, since the calculation is unfamiliar to them. Usually the IB passing rates are higher than the AP, which is interesting, and perhaps not an unalloyed blessing for IB.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 15, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Jay, even though I don't always agree with you, I love reading your blog.

A select few of your commenters, though, detract from the discussion.

At what point does it become appropriate to ban someone?

Posted by: hainish | November 15, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Lisamc31
You are right that no one holds a "gun" to a teacher's head, but teacher's are indeed told what and how to teach, and what not to teach each year. If a teacher teaches grammar"out of context" or diagramming for example in MS, they will be written up in their observations for not following their curriculum maps etc., and could potentially lose their jobs if it is felt their refusal is insubordination/dereliction of duties etc.

Teachers have not been allowed to use their professional judgment for years. I have many teacher friends, and I hear these complaints. The unions aren't to blame, rather administrators buying into various research, programs, fads and school boards are also to blame, for they too get on many a bandwagon, without thinking about how it will actually play out in a classroom.

Posted by: researcher2 | November 15, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Ditto Sue Katz Miller -

No multiplication tables taught in our MCPS Cluster either. Not the school's responsibility. If you want your kid to know the times tables, teach it at home. That was the way MCPS was when Jerry Weast arrived in 1999. Did he change it? No.

Posted by: jzsartucci | November 15, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

I also regularly read your blog Jay and enjoy it. As a veteran AP teacher I concur with your opinion about the value of AP classes. By pushing kids a little and surrounding them with higher achieving kids we may not get immediate results but our efforts bear fruit down the road in college. I know this to be a fact.

Posted by: Hrod1 | November 15, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

I posted this comment earlier, but Jay or a Post moderator did not allow it in the discussion. So I'll try it once more:
___________________________

Jay Mathews had a perfect opportunity in this column to address multiple issues affecting public education, but he opted instead to skirt them and make the claim (again) that the core problems is that students just aren't challenged enough.

Maybe. But maybe the problems run deeper, and maybe they are symptomatic of the kinds of policies that Mathews promotes.

First, Jay might have said that the data that Montgomery County (and other school districts) puts out "so proudly" are mostly irrelevant. SAT scores, for example, don't tell much other than the family income levels of a student, a school, or a community. As Census data confirm, Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, so SAT scores should be relatively high. The county schools may as well have said, "Wow, SAT scores show that we're affluent."

The SAT, touted by school districts and colleges, is a badly flawed test that doesn't do much. At best it predicts about 15 percent of the variance in freshman-year college grades, and after that it doesn't do anything. College enrollment specialists say that using shoe size would be as effective (or more so) than using the SAT.

Jay is, as Tony Kornheiser used to say, in the tank for Advanced Placement. He promotes it as the bet thing since sliced pizza. But research on AP doesn't support Mathews effusive praise. Students say the same; they increasingly take AP to make their high school transcripts "look good" rather than to learn.

Jay also says that there has been "no significant increase in math or reading achievement FOR 17-YEAR-OLDS in 30 years [emphasis mine]." He's fudging the data.

Jay is referring to National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) data. What he omits is (1) that there have indeed been increases for 4th and/or 8th graders,
and (2) that over the last 30 years the student pool that's been tested is increasingly diverse, and poor and (3) that NAEP proficiency standards are so badly flawed that everyone who's studied them –– from education researchers to the National Academy of Sciences to the-then General Accounting Office (GAO) –– says they are of little use.

[Note: Montgomery County may have some problems, no doubt. The schools overemphasize – wrongly – AP and SAT scores. Apparently there are communication problems and a lack of philosophical clarity at the central office. But good teachers evoke interest, spark discussion, and challenge thinking....nothing new.]

Jay had the opportunity to write about how the Montgomery County school system, and countless school systems across the country (and the Bush and Obama Departments of Education), are failing their students, their communities and the nation by emphasizing a business-model, top-down, standardized-test crazy public education.

And that's one big problem.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | November 16, 2010 6:37 AM | Report abuse

For what it's worth, my kids' Ward 3 DCPS elementary school took the same approach: multiplication tables should be taught and reinforced at home.

And the gap widens . . . . .

Posted by: trace1 | November 16, 2010 6:59 AM | Report abuse

While you're waiting for data on the MCPS final exam scores, why don't you check out "credit reclamation" in Montgomery County Public Schools. Is it really possible to have an F in a course changed into a passing grade MONTHS after the fact, by re-taking the final, or handing in work, or doing an extra project? (without having to actually re-take the class?)

Posted by: ontarget1 | November 16, 2010 10:00 AM | Report abuse

The trend in education right now is to sink all resources into the students who struggle, and everyone else moves along with incremental progress because the teachers are so busy documenting, assessing, re-teaching, and collecting data to help the handful, that all other students suffer. In reality, the students who struggle often are those who make no effort to help themselves, and now we are adding to that group a huge number of academic, college-bound students who are not interested in an Ivy League school. My colleague collected data on the time students spent studying for tests and quizzes, and found that the average time academic students spent studying for a Biology test was 10 minutes.

Posted by: stmepyle | November 16, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

R2 says:

"Teachers have not been allowed to use their professional judgment for years".

And you don't think the unions are to blame in the least bit for this? I can tell you point blank, you're wrong. When new, young, enthusiastic teachers are hired, they are told in no uncertain terms by the tenured deadwood and union President, "You better not go above and beyond what is required of you under your contract and make us look bad."

That's reality. Teachers who have allowed the union to control their classroom no longer deserve to be called "professionals". If the teachers' union and the administrators' union refuse to allow teachers to share their professional skills and knowledge with students, please tell me why we continue to support this self-perpetuating destructive system?

Bust up the unions. Public school teachers should retain their contracts based on performance and student reviews. Merit pay to the most outstanding among them. Stop holding our students hostage to ugly union walk-outs, black t-shirts and "No contract" buttons.

Do you have any idea what kind of negotiations my district went through with the teacher's union just to get them to agree to post homework assignments on the district's in-house E-network? Over a year. For that one simple sticking point. In the 21st century. A simple communication task that would take a teacher less than 2 minutes to perform.

Posted by: lisamc31 | November 16, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

For mcrockett1---I always appreciate your posts. Your critique of AP and my views on it used to be more common, so it is good for me to remember that there are smart people out there that share your view, and speak to that.
I try my best to address multiple issues in education. I believe I turn out more words than any other education writer, and at least some of them I hope have value. But I can't address all of those issues, even in Montgomery County, in a 680 word column. If I tried to do that, it would be unreadable, so please forgive me if I have to focus on one or two issues at a time.
As you know, I share yr distaste for the SAT. But your view that research on the AP doesn't back up the strong support for it from the teachers who have influenced me is just wrong. Readers should check for themselves. Google "AP Saul Geiser" or "AP University of Texas" and you will see what I mean. If you really feel that the research doesnt support a favorable view of AP, send me an email telling me why, and I can use that as a start to a debate which I can run on the blog.
My statement on the NAEP results was, as you concede by indirection, correct. I was talking, as I said, about results for 17 year olds, and yr statement is somewhat incorrect because the long term NAEP looks at 9 year olds and 13 year olds, not 4th and 8th graders. Let me know if you would like to debate AP.

For ontarget1---I will send yr good question in right now, and provide the answer either here or in the next Monday column.

To Hrod1 and the LeGuinesque hainish, thanks for the very kind posts. I realize some of the folks that comment on the blog are aggressive and occasionally offensive, but I also sense a mental toughness among those who read the blog that is more than a match for our few meanies. I personally think they add a bit of useful off the wall friction to the mix, and I would miss them if somebody banned them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 16, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

From my observations of our school district in Pa., there are a lot of resources available for the top students and for those at the bottom. For the vast majority in the middle, it's sink or swim.

My son is a good student who takes many advanced classes but struggles in math. It's been years since he has had a math teacher who corrected the homework, rather than just marking it "completed." The teachers don't have a good idea of what the kids understand and have learned until it's test time and then there's no time to go back and re-teach it. This year, for the first time since 2nd grade (he's now a sophomore), he has a wonderful math teacher who encourages the kids to call her at home with questions, prepares great reviews of the material, and communicates with the parents. The difference is night and day, and he brought home an A in the class, after Cs and Ds in math last year (and that with weekly outside tutoring).

Posted by: karen2311 | November 16, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

For Jay-I googled Geiser: "Advanced Placement courses, on the other hand, were poor predictors of student success in college, while hurting the chances of admission for applicants from schools with limited AP offerings (Geiser and Santelices, 2006). A growing number of students now enroll in AP because they earn “bonus points” simply for attending class, without taking or passing the AP exams. This boosts GPAs and improves admissions profiles. But while AP exam scores were a good indicator, mere enrollment in AP classes bore no relationship to students’ later performance at UC. These findings suggested that the widespread practice of inflating students’ grades for AP participation was unwarranted: “Bonus points” should be awarded only where students demonstrate actual mastery of the subject matter by taking and passing the AP exams....The SAT Subject Tests and AP exams do have limitations. Scoring on both tests is norm-referenced, despite the fact that colleges more often treat them as proficiency tests (especially the AP exams, which are used for college placement as well as admissions). And the AP program has come under fire from some educators who charge that, by “teaching to the test,” AP classes too often restrict the high-school curriculum and prevent students from exploring the material in depth. A number of elite college-prep academies have dropped AP for this reason" Source: BACK TO THE BASICS:
In Defense of Achievement (and Achievement Tests) in College Admissions, July 2008, Saul Geiser at www.usc.edu/programs/cerpp/docs/GeiserPaper.doc

Posted by: skeptic16 | November 16, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

>>For lisamc31 who wrote: Social promotions were eliminated years ago in NY.

This depends on the district. Upstate, social promotion is done. If not, it would look racist as so many are transferring in from NYC public schools to escape the 'poor schools' ... ie not be held back as planned. Thus our rural district spends a significant chunk of the budget on double period remedial m.s. and h.s. classes as well as afterschool tutoring, AIS, rTi, psych support, homebound, alternative and night high school. Almost everything is full inclusion...so very hard for an average child to progress without private tutoring -- either in the subject or in study skills. The hold up after all this is the Regents Exam in Global Studies & Geography...the culmination of 9th and 10th grade SS..can't get the diploma without passing. Can't cram 2 years in over summer school.

The bottom line is that there is no easy path to acquring skills and knowledge. It's a day by day process, where every day must be meaningful and all days add up to meaningful progress. Extra help, afterschool tutoring, double period remedial classes, credit recovery and summer school make it seem that daily effort in class and some studying isn't necessary as an adult will walk you through the process each and every day that you show up. The hard part here is getting attendance...even with all this help, many don't show enough to get credit.

To answer the question of 'what will motivate the average..'..that would be grouping by instructional need, so that they can acheive mastery under their own steam. Everyone loves to be a winner. No one wants to go in with the deck stacked against them.

Posted by: LGMNY | November 16, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

For those interested in a full examination of AP see "A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program," Edited by Philip Sadler, Gerhard Sonnert, Robert Tai, and Kristin Klopfenstein, (2010).
Some findings from that book:
1. AP is "not effective in universally countering the effects of poor preparation or lack of effort...".
2. "Yet, simply taking an AP course appears to say little about future college performance."
3. "there is little to recommend any benefit accruing to students who take and fail their AP exam. AP appears to offer an advantage only to students who perform well on the AP exam."
4. "Your best measure of your success at mastering college-level work is taking and passing the AP exam."
5. "AP courses in which few students take or pass the exam are not effective, and the resources, both material and personnel, should be considered for reallocation to improve lower-level courses."

Jay and I had a fairly far-reaching dialogue about our differing opinions about AP a couple of years ago.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/10/AR2008031000401.html

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 17, 2010 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Patrick is correct.

SAT scores are far from useless, and until poor whites stop outscoring wealthy blacks, it's ignorant to say that they only indicate income levels.

Predicting first year grades was meaningful back in the Dark Ages when everyone took the same courses. What the SATs predict today is whether or not a student will end up in remediation. High SAT scores for a district means that the kids are going to college and take credit courses, rather than wasting time and money on remediation.

Jay's favorite go-to puppy, AP classes, are useless at predicting that. Jay's Challenge Index schools send thousands or more students to remedial clsses every year.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 17, 2010 2:43 AM | Report abuse

For skeptic16---good work. Geiser is right that the course without the test is not much good, which is why in rating schools I calculate test participation, not course participation. But I fear he strayed out of his area of expertise for citing the complaints about AP from a few tiny prep schools as important. They are all small, affluent, out of touch with the realities of public education and educate much less than 1 percent of high schoolers.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 17, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
My reading of the Geiser quote is that he is not necessarily adopting the position of AP critics, merely pointing out that they are out there. I would agree with you that the critic group to which he refers is small and perhaps Geiser should have pointed that out as well.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 18, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

Ontarget1 asked about credit reclamation. Here is the question and response from Mont. county spokesman Dana Tofig:
Q: Why don't you check out "credit reclamation" in Montgomery County Public Schools. Is it really possible to have an F in a course changed into a passing grade MONTHS after the fact, by re-taking the final, or handing in work, or doing an extra project? (without having to actually re-take the class?)
A: No. Students in MCPS who fail a high school course must retake the course. They may retake the course in an extended hours program, High School Plus, or they may retake the course in summer school. In some cases, students also may retake a course during the school day at their high school. MCPS seniors within three credits of meeting graduation requirements or students not currently enrolled in a MCPS high school, may take an available course online to recover credit for a course they failed.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 18, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

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