New rules to level mathematical playing field

Original article appeared in the Mountain View Voice.

by Kevin Forestieri

Guidelines expected to boost Latino, African American student enrollment in advanced math classes

Amid growing pressure from state lawmakers, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District is poised to adopt a new policy that makes test scores and student performance a key requirement to get into higher math classes.

Math placement policies, or lack thereof, came up as an issue earlier this year, when the district was criticized by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. The group released a report claiming that the district had disproportionately placed minority students into lower-level math in ninth grade, even after they had completed the equivalent course in eighth grade.

Superintendent Jeff Harding proposed to the school board at the Sept. 8 meeting that the district set up new guidelines for how freshman are placed into classes like algebra and geometry, based almost entirely on cold, objective measures. Students will be placed based on placement tests, standardized tests, grades and any other “objective indicators of student performance and proficiency in mathematics,” according to the report.

Placement recommendations and other subjective measures are not considered in the newly proposed policies, but it leaves room for students who show “talents and abilities” to teachers and counselors that are not apparent in test scores, the report states.

There was little discussion among board members, who generally agreed that Harding’s drafted policy was the right direction for the district. Board member Phil Faillace said the placement standards should help to encourage students to move expeditiously through the district’s math courses.

“I think it’s on the right track, let’s keep going,” Faillace said.

If approved, the policy would be a significant about-face from the district’s current practice, which has no math placement requirements at all. The current policy offers open access to students who want to challenge themselves in a more difficult math course.

Despite downplaying subjective measures in the math placement process, there is still some wiggle room. The policy states that “an exception to the prohibition” can be made, meaning students are allowed to take a more challenging math class than objective measures would dictate. In that respect, Harding told the Voice, the policy is not far from what the district was already doing.

Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf told the Voice in June that she saw the district go through numerous iterations of math-placement policies, and open access policies had worked much better and didn’t keep students from taking classes because they bombed a single test.

Left behind

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights group published a 37-page report that found Latino and African-American students are far more likely to get placed in ninth-grade algebra than their white and Asian peers throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties — despite the fact that the students meet or exceed standards that would allow them to take geometry in their freshman year.

Students placed in algebra in their freshman year are unlikely to reach higher-level math classes like calculus by their senior year, and have a lower chance of getting accepted into four-year universities, the report states.

The group specifically pointed to the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District as a prime example of minority students being held back. After filing multiple public records requests with the district for data on ninth-grade math placement, the LCCR parsed the information and concluded that 92.9 percent of white students advanced to geometry from algebra in ninth grade, compared to 61 percent of African-American students and 71.7 percent of Latino students.

The LCCR report noted most of the African-American and Latino students in the district come from Mountain View’s middle schools, Crittenden and Graham.

Harding’s proposed policy comes at a time when the California Senate is considering making it a requirement for districts with eighth- and ninth-graders to explicitly state the math placement policies. Senate Bill 359, introduced by State Sen. Holly Mitchell, would require school districts to adopt fair, objective and transparent math placement policies. The bill is intended to increase the number of teens preparing for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, particularly minority students.

The bill has been firmly backed by the Mountain View-based Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which is leading a state-wide coalition to address math misplacement in the region and the state, according to the nonprofit’s website.

Prior to the newly proposed bill, the state Senate last year adopted a resolution that encourages local school boards to develop mathematics placement policy that takes into account placement tests, statewide assessments, grades and coursework. The resolution pointed to math misplacement as a serious concern, and called the disproportionately high misplacement of minority students a serious concern.

One of the fellows working with LCCR, Dana Isaac, told the Voice in June that the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District was of particular significance not only because minority students are underrepresented in higher-level math, but because it’s located in the center of the tech industry, right next door to Google, which lacks a strong minority presence. She described the issue as a pipeline problem, and said the nearby schools may be a contributing factor.

Isaac also said it was a significant issue that the district had no written math placement policy, which she said means there is no assurance that students will be placed in the correct level of math. An open access policy on math placement, she argued, means the burden is shifted to the families who have to advocate for their kids and make sure they get in the right class.

The district’s new math placement policy is expected to return to the board for a vote later this year.