The back-to-school packet came the same day as The Washington Post article about kids in our district—Montgomery County, Maryland—failing the algebra I end-of-year exam at frighteningly high rates.
Mom’s summer vacation from school worries came to an abrupt end.
Then I took a closer look at the article. Either I needed some remedial math myself or the Post’s metro editors could have used some remedial lessons in how not to bury the lede.
More than half of high schoolers failed algebra 1, algebra 2, bridge to algebra 2 and geometry exams. But three-quarters of high school students taking honors geometry and honors precalculus passed their exams. Middle school students taking the same exams in honors geometry and algebra 2 had pass rates exceeding 90 percent.
Got that? If you’ve got a child who’s talented, motivated, prepared and/or pushed to get to those classes in middle school, he or she will likely do fine. But if your child’s test scores prompt the district to leave algebra for high school, s/he has only a 50:50 chance of mastering the material.
My first reaction was selfish. I vowed to hire an advocate and redouble my effort to get our child into the advanced math classes his teachers said he was ready for, but his test scores didn’t.
Then I was a little bit ashamed. Our family has the money to hire an advocate and the social networks to find a good one. Someone who has the leisure time and the ability to play math games and set sports statistics problems for my budding Nate Silver. And I have empowered friends who tell me, his mom, that the right thing to do is fight.
And, if I’m honest, my blond son matches expectations for what a child who’d be good at math looks like.
What Are the Numbers Really Saying?
This matters, because one thing we know our wonderful school district is not good at is raising minority achievement. I would love to see the racial breakdown between who takes algebra and geometry in junior high and who takes it in high school. But even without knowing, I have my suspicions.
Our school is that rare thing in America—public, well-funded, well-integrated. It is plurality minority, and the last time I checked, more than 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Kids come to school without breakfast, without winter coats, without a word of English. Other kids are the children of diplomats, bankers, management consultants. The teachers and staff are also diverse and they are well-prepared, loving and ready to go the extra mile.
We love our school. And yet, much as I’d rather not see it, not everyone is experiencing Montgomery County’s riches the same way we are.
Some Kids Are Disappearing
The older my son gets, what class he’s in is determined more and more by test performance, and less and less by assessments of his classroom strengths and needs. With every passing year, success in advanced work seems to demand parents who have the time and background to engage with it. And every year, the group of kids doing advanced work gets whiter.
Coincidence? Outlier? Hardly. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that when they enter school, high-achieving low-income kids mirror America ethnically and geographically. But over the next dozen years, they disappear.
Among U.S. high school students scoring 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams, 61 percent are white, slightly higher than their share of high school graduates as a whole. Far more disturbing, less than 5 percent of successful AP test takers are African American. And whether you look at the SAT or ACT, the average scores of Asian and white students are far higher than the average among their African-American and Latino peers.
When We’re Not Honest, We Fail
Recently, This American Life featured a devastating podcast about the re-segregation of American schools. I gave myself yet another back pat for our integrated, enlightened community. But if I let myself see what’s happening in the classroom, if The Washington Post had chosen to explore a little more who succeeds at algebra in junior high and who fails in high school, my self-congratulation is hollow.
The point of all this testing, remember, was supposed to be that we could see where schools are failing kids? I’ve run a nonprofit and worked in politics, so I understand why the county doesn’t want to point this out. And as a parent with my share of selfishness and even racism—wouldn’t think of making any changes that would disadvantage my kid.
Ultimately, though, I’d trust the county more with my kid’s needs if I saw it taking an honest look at why it’s failing other kids.