Mercury News editorial: School districts must tackle algebra discrimination

Original article can be found here.

by mercury news editorial board

There is no greater predictor of college success than a strong performance in eighth-grade algebra. It sets up a student to take calculus by 12th grade, which significantly boosts opportunities to attend a top college and pursue a career in the lucrative science, technology, engineering and math fields.

But a new report, “Held Back,” points out an alarming problem: In multiple Santa Clara and San Mateo county high schools, some students — primarily Latino and black — who master algebra in eighth grade are inexplicably placed in the course again the following year. That has far-reaching consequences for kids, cutting off their path to calculus, to college success in math and to career options.
This has to stop. School districts with data like this must change their practices right away or — as this report lays out in stark terms — risk a lawsuit. This is discrimination, whether the harm is intentional or not.
The report is based on a 2010 study by the Noyce Foundation detailing nine area districts where the data indicates about half of white students and 10 percent of Asians repeated algebra in ninth grade. (Noyce promised the districts confidentiality.) But among Latino and black students, the figure was more than 70 percent.
If students don’t master algebra, they shouldn’t move on to geometry; that’s a recipe for failure. But that isn’t what happened here. More than 40 percent of held-back students had gotten a B-minus in eighth-grade algebra or had scored at or above proficiency on an assessment test, or both. The decision to hold the kids back was subjective.

 Emmett Carson, CEO and president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — which funded “Held Back” — decided to take this on after seeing the Noyce data. “The idea that students who had proven they were proficient were being held back largely because of someone’s discretion simply was unbelievable to us,” he said.

And half the held-back students did no better or worse the second time around, which makes the practice even more egregious.
Fortunately, there is an easy fix. Carson is asking districts to make placement decisions based solely on objective factors like test scores. Teacher discretion should only be used to place a child in a more difficult class, not an easier one. Every Silicon Valley district ought to review its data and its practices in light of this recommendation.
That’s what San Jose’s East Side Union High School District did after learning of the potential for misplacement. In 2011, 36 percent of ninth-graders were enrolled in geometry. In 2012, after the district removed subjective factors from its decision-making, the number increased to 42 percent. The number of black, Latino and Asian students taking algebra jumped 9 percent, and it’s likely that will continue to rise as East Side and its feeder districts refine their practices.
As Carson said to us, “If we can’t get people to do this for kids who have performed, how are we going to do the hard things?” He couldn’t be more right. He has pledged to keep the pressure on districts, and so will we.