- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Montgomery County's highly touted, extremely expensive, supposedly "world-class" public education system isn't so "world-class" after all. In a memo to school board members, Superintendent Jerry Weast identified a "pattern of underachievement." That may well be the understatement of the year. The subject of the memo was the utterly abysmal performance of the vast majority of the county's public high school students who took the Algebra I final exam in January. An eye-popping 64 percent of the students flunked the exam. Even worse, 80 percent of both black and Hispanic students failed the test. (For white and Asian-American students, the failure rates were 50 percent and 54 percent, respectively.)

Who is responsible for this outrage? With his blindfold securely fastened, Mr. Weast seems incapable of identifying the culprits. He clearly is not blaming school board members, who for nearly 20 years buried their heads in the sand while each high school was permitted to establish its own passing grade for the county's final exam. Board members claim to have been shocked to learn of this practice last year, prompting them to establish a uniform passing grade of 60 percent for January's exam.

"I'm not blaming the principals, and I'm not blaming the schools," Mr. Weaver inexplicably told The Washington Post. Why not? By encouraging students to believe they had mastered the rigors of algebra when they most emphatically had not, the principals and their high schools were perpetrating a massive fraud. Not surprisingly, schools and their principals, who had both the motive and the means to commit this crime, were the direct beneficiaries. The schools allowed students and the public to believe administrators and teachers were meeting their obligations to educate the vast majority of their pupils. In 1999, John F. Kennedy High School, for example, unilaterally declared 33 percent to be a passing grade, an irresponsibly low standard that allowed 72 percent of its test takers to meet it. Facing this year's higher standard, 72 percent of JFK students failed the exam. At Albert Einstein High School, where a score of 35 percent was sufficient to pass last year, 90 percent flunked this year, more than double its 1999 failure rate. While a majority of Einstein's Hispanic students passed last year's Algebra I test, 99 percent failed this year's. Throughout Montgomery County last year, before this fraudulent scheme was uncovered, fully 71 percent of Algebra I test-takers were deemed to have passed, virtually double the passing rate this year.

Inconveniently for Mr. Weast, he cannot blame class size, which was significantly reduced last year to a teacher-student ratio of one teacher per 20 students under the so-called Algebra Initiative, which seems comically named in retrospect. "You can't just give someone a lower class size, pat them on the head and say 'Go,' " Mr. Weast pleaded to The Post. "There was no training [and] there was no defined curriculum or defined testing." No defined curriculum? No defined testing? Whose faults are these?

Mr. Weast should remove his blindfold, gather up school board members, school principals and high-priced administrators, and look in the mirror. That's where the problem is. Fixing it means taking responsibility for it. A real leader would do so, if that is he is serious about education in Montgomery County.

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