New rules to level mathematical playing field

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.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


9 people like this
Posted by MVHS Parent
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 2:35 pm

This is confusing. I thought the policy already allowed students to sign up for whatever courses they wanted. That was what was stated at 9th grade orientation for my daughter.

8 people like this
Posted by Possible Clarification?
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 3:41 pm

It seems this would just establish a "floor" via an objective process to prevent a student from being placed too low. The initial placement (which parents/students could presumably accept or reject) would be based on an objective measure, rather than teacher recommendation.

The Superintendent indicates that students would still be able to open enroll in a higher class if they choose.

6 people like this
Posted by OldMV
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 14, 2015 at 5:52 pm

I am very highly biased toward separating students into educational tracks based upon their abilities regardless of race or class. Student learn better when they are in classes with their intellectual peers so the teachers can treat them as equals without the distractions of superior or inferior students. If these "new" rules were based solely upon "Students will be placed based on placement tests, standardized tests, grades and any other 'objective indicators of student performance and proficiency in mathematics '" then I would totally support them. The problem is that the school board has left a huge SUBJECTIVE loophole to be exploited by Politically Correct teachers and administrators under pressure from parents of inferior students and also the very aggressive (and horribly misguided) "Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights".

The huge loophole is that the the policy "leaves room for students who show 'talents and abilities' to teachers and counselors that are not reflected in test scores". This is not objective. It is subjective and is subject to political manipulation --- by groups like the so-called civil rights lawyers and wishful thinking educators.

7 people like this
Posted by @OldMV
a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 14, 2015 at 7:20 pm

There you go again, showing that side of you that should have been buried after 1945...

Stop. It. Already. Spanky.

8 people like this
Posted by Trust kids
a resident of Rex Manor
on Sep 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm

I hope these new rules still allow students to challenge themselves and move into a higher classes if they want to. I had a horrible 8th grade math teacher (he should have just been fired, he didn't teach us anything). I arrived in 9th grade being told I had the second lowest math test score in my class (looking at the placement test). I knew it was because I had essentially missed all of 8th grade math due to this horrible teacher.

I begged to be placed in the regular math track (they wanted me in remedial), knowing full well that I was capable of catching up. At first the high school principal was reluctant citing my horrible test scores on the placement exam. I kept pushing (this was all from me, not my parents) and finally he let me move up.

I struggled for the first 6 months but worked my butt off and finally caught up. By 10th grade I was above average for my class. I really can't say where my life would be right now had the principal not trusted me and ignored the test scores - if I'd been tracked in the remedial math class. I hope other kids are given this opportunity if they choose to take it.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After 39 years of cakes and pastries, Palo Alto institution Prolific Oven to close
By Elena Kadvany | 55 comments | 16,626 views

What is your climate personality?
By Sherry Listgarten | 35 comments | 1,909 views

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) Process Explained
By Steve Levy | 5 comments | 1,237 views

"You Gotta Have Balls [to do counseling] . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 887 views


Early Bird rates end today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families. Early Bird prices end Sun, Aug 18.

Register now