Montgomery County residents have long been proud of their award-winning public school system. But then came the shocking news that 61 percent of high school students flunked the final Algebra I exam, while only 11 percent earned an "A" or "B." Similar high failure rates were posted in geometry (62 percent) and Algebra 2 (57 percent). And they were not limited to math: Between 37 percent and 50 percent also failed biology, English and history exams. Add the fact that nearly 70 percent of Montgomery County Public Schools graduates who attend Montgomery College need remedial help in math, and stunned parents and elected officials are openly wondering whether their school system's glory days are behind it.

Those fears are hardly unfounded. Earlier this month, MCPS officials finally released data confirming that the high failure rates on this year's countywide exams were not a statistical anomaly but consistent over the past five academic years. Superintendent Joshua Starr called the failure rate "unacceptably high," but he was the one who deliberately kept this information from the public. In fact, it was only until parents and administrators at Rockville High School began circulating startling low pass/fail rates stored in an MCPS database that parents and county residents even knew there was a problem, let alone a systemic one.

Students were blamed for not taking the exams seriously because they could pass the course even if they didn't pass the test. Then the exams were blamed for not aligning with the curriculum. Neither excuse holds up to logical scrutiny.

Exams are tools that objectively measure basic skills students are learning in the classroom. Grade inflation should have been suspected when thousands of students were passing the courses but not the tests. And if the final exams do not accurately measure student achievement, why didn't MCPS replace them five years ago?

Claiming that "the final exam data does not tell the whole story," Starr simultaneously announced two new committees comprised of teachers, administrators and parents to "strengthen our mathematics program" and "provide ongoing oversight and feedback."

It was a tacit admission that MCPS' math program itself needs remediation and an indication that MCPS has been resting on its past laurels.

For years, a group of Montgomery County parents have complained that MCPS' once stellar math program was being "dumbed down" to pursue other policy objectives. The high failure rate shows they were right all along.