According to a letter written to the Washington Post by the acting superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Mr. Larry Bowers, and the Board of Education president, Ms. Patricia O’Neil, the decision to replace two-hour semester exams in Montgomery County Public Schools with quarterly marking period assessments would “reclaim valuable instructional time and ensure our educators have the information they need to support our students.”
The two leaders go on to insist that “More than two-thirds of them take at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam. And state law requires all 11th-graders to pass a college- and career-readiness exam, which in MCPS is the SAT, ACT or Accuplacer.”
The district’s own Class of 2014 Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Exam Participation and Performance report, made available on its website, does assert that “In 2014, two thirds of MCPS graduates took one or more AP exams (66.7%).”
However, Table A2, in the report paints a very different picture. Just 38.3% of black male graduates who took one or more AP exams in 2014. Hispanic/Latino male graduates posted a higher number, with 46.1% taking one or more AP exams. For special education students the number was 23.1%, while 46.0% students receiving free and reduced price meals (FARMS), a well-accepted proxy for poverty, met the benchmark.
How did the school system conclude that “In 2014, two thirds of MCPS graduates took one or more AP exams?” With around 80% of white and Asian graduates taking one or more AP exams, the numbers average to 66.7% for the district.
That’s not all. At the largest high school in the district, Montgomery Blair, even taking into account students in the magnet program who tend to be prolific test takers, just 58.6% took one or more AP exams. Even without a magnet program to bolster its numbers, 55.3% at Northwood High School, located a stone’s throw from Blair, made the metric. In comparison, just 46.2% at Gaithersburg High School took one or more AP exams. At Blair, one of the largest cohorts of students, those identifying as black posted lower numbers, with just 40% of graduates taking one or more APs. Since Blair does not offer International Baccalaureate courses, the number of students taking at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam is the same as the number of students taking at least one Advanced Placement exam.
These numbers, at the very least, hold out the possibility that eliminating final exams will increase the possibility that a significant segment of the minority population at high schools may not be assessed on their end-of-course performance.
When it comes to the MCPS designated college- and career-readiness exams, the picture is equally illuminating. According to a report released by the district, for the class of 2015, just 19.4% of black or African American graduates at Blair took the ACT, while 33% at Northwood took the same test. Another report available on the district website provides the corresponding numbers for the SAT test for the class of 2015. When it came to the SAT, 73.9% of black or African American graduates at Blair took the test, while 68.1% at Northwood took the same test. According to the data in these reports, minorities are also less likely to meet the district’s own college-ready benchmarks.
Eliminating final exams, especially when minorities are more likely not to take AP or IB exams, and less likely to meet college-ready benchmarks, will not serve a district with a burgeoning minority population well.
It should also be noted that in a state where public education should be free, the largest school district is relying on exams such as AP, IB, SAT, and ACT, all for which students must pay out-of-pocket, to assess student educational attainment.
The decision to eliminate final exams, at least for the reasons expressed by the district leadership, is inconsistent with the mission of public education and makes little educational sense.