School districts across the state are minimizing the role of parent advocacy in determining what classes students get placed in, but that hasn't slowed the rate of Mountain View students taking higher math. Following a new state law that requires robust, test-based guidelines for math placement that limits parental clout, more middle-school students are enrolled in accelerated classes, including algebra and geometry.
Last year, the state Legislature passed the California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015, forcing school districts to adopt clearly written, objective measures for math placement. The aim of the law is to eliminate the role of subjective measures -- like teacher recommendations and vocal parents. Advocates for the bill argued that some students, particularly low-income and minority students, were less likely to get into higher math classes because of these subjective measures, derailing their progress towards college readiness by their senior year in high school.
While it's too early to say whether the new math placement policy has achieved any social justice goals, it's clear that it isn't proving to be a barrier to access to more rigorous courses. Both of the public elementary school districts serving Mountain View are enrolling more students in higher-level math than ever before, officials say.
In the Los Altos School District, where 27 percent of the students are Mountain View residents, 37 percent of seventh-grade students are taking algebra this year, compared to 24 percent last year. At the same time, the number of eighth-grade students taking honors geometry class leaped from 8 percent last year to 26 percent this year.
The school district uses a combination of scores, including the state standardized test, known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test, as well as an assessment called iReady, in order to determine whether students are prepared to take on tough math classes, according to Sandra McGonagle, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. While the increase this year is pretty huge, McGonagle said she is confident the district has not opened the floodgates and over-enrolled students in higher math.
"We feel like we're doing an excellent job in making sure students are appropriately placed," she said.
The Mountain View Whisman School District also has seen an increase in enrollment in higher-level math. More students are pouring into the district's accelerated math "pathways" that lead to the completion of algebra or geometry by the time they reach high school, according to Cathy Baur, assistant superintendent of educational services. Baur added that the district continues to track students after they enter high school, and said they continue to be "very successful" in their math coursework.
The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District adopted a new math placement last year, which district officials say was really just putting the district's existing practices into writing. Since then, placement has changed very little, and the percentages of students taking algebra, geometry and algebra II are based more on the math classes completed in eighth grade, according to Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf.
Are test scores alone enough to do the job? Dmitry Shkolnik, a parent of a sixth-grade student in the Los Altos School District, argues that the district continues to under-enroll students in challenging math classes, and ought to reconsider its criteria. In a message that served as a call-to-action for other parents, he pointed out that 70 percent of fifth-grade students in the Los Altos School District exceeded state standards SBAC test in the spring, but only a third of the students were placed in accelerated math for sixth grade.
The discrepancy hit home for Shkolnik when he found out that his son, whom he said had scored 99 percent on the math portion of the SBAC test, had been placed in the normal sixth-grade math track.
"My kid never had any problem with math, and his teacher said the regular course is quite boring for him," Shkolnik told the Voice. "My son even did Khan Academy and after-school programs on top of the school program."
Shkolnik said he later learned that his son had scored just shy of the cutoff on the iReady test, an adaptive assessment that he believes exploits weaknesses in students' math background and reports out a vastly understated math performance.
"If you fail a task, instead of switching to other subjects where you may be good, it gives you more questions to find the root cause of the mistakes," he said. "Every child gets a different test, which is questionable for placement purposes."
McGonagle said there's no math test designed solely for the purpose of math placement, and the use of diagnostic, adapative tests like iReady are similar to other generally-accepted exams like the SBAC test. Both are designed to dole out harder questions as students perform better, she said, and there's an expectation that students are going to get a lot of the questions wrong. Overall, the number of complaints from parents has gone down this year, she said.
Following a re-test last week, Shkolnik said his child has since been placed in the accelerated math course. He has continued to meet with district officials, however, to make sure the district isn't placing high-performing students in regular math classes.
The Los Altos School District is cautiously moving forward with the major increase in enrollment in higher-level math, McGonagle said, making sure that students aren't struggling. The over-arching goal, she said, is to make sure any students who could succeed in higher-level math get the opportunity.
"I want as many students as possible to be in advanced math classes, as long as they can do it successfully," she said.