The California Legislative Black Caucus kicked off a statewide town hall tour on math misplacement, the practice of putting students of color in the wrong level math classes, in East Palo Alto on Tuesday, Sept. 30.
The forum, hosted by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at Costano Elementary School, brought together state legislators, Bay Area educators and others to discuss the issue of unequal mathematics education, particularly for African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students.
"The issue of inequalities in math education, when talking about black and Latino students, is an issue that impacts all of California," said Ravenswood City School District Superintendent Gloria Hernandez. "California's ability as a leading economic engine to compete in the global economy is negatively impacted when many of our state's own residents aren't provided the opportunity to compete here at home."
Tuesday's forum was born out of a 2013 report called "Held Back: Addressing Misplacement of 9th Grade Students in Bay Area School Math Classes," that offers data showing the prevalence of math misplacement in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, the legal liability school districts could face for math misplacement and concrete recommendations for solutions. The report was issued by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
"Held Back" cites a 2010 study that looked at math placement in nine school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, finding that nearly 65 percent of students who took algebra I in eighth grade often considered a gatekeeper class to success in high school and college were forced to repeat algebra in ninth grade. They were not required to repeat the class not because of their academic achievement: More than 60 percent of the students scored proficient or advanced on the California State Test (CST) in algebra, and more than 42 percent had received a B- or higher grade in the eighth-grade class.
The study also found that disproportionate numbers of African American, Latino and Pacific Islander students were forced to repeat algebra I in freshman year. While 52.6 percent of African American students took algebra I in eighth grade (in the 2006-07 year), only 17.8 percent of African American students were enrolled in geometry in ninth grade. Similarly, half of all Latino students took algebra I their last year of middle school, but only 16 percent moved on to enroll in geometry in ninth grade.
"Think about running a race, running as hard as you can, passing the finish line and seeing everybody behind you and being told by somebody, 'I don't really think you won the race,'" said Silicon Valley Community Foundation President Emmett Carson. "'We're going to have you -- just you, not the other people who ran the race -- go back and run the race again with some other people because we don't think you really won the race.' That's what we've been doing to these young people."
Carson said that this practice happens in subject areas other than math, but math is the "single most important predictor of college success."
"The University of California and the California State University system have a set of standards that they want for kids coming in for a certain level of math proficiency. If you have to repeat your eighth-grade math course in ninth grade, you are derailed," Carson said. "You are off track from meeting those requirements to get to college. And now you are not only off track, your family's future, your lifetime earning, everything about you changes because of the decision that happened to you in eighth grade and that ninth-grade placement."
Everyone who spoke at Tuesday's forum pointed to low teacher expectations and unconscious biases as the causes for math misplacement.
"I'm where I am today because some teacher said, 'I believe in you,'" Carson said, "but some other kids aren't where I am because a teacher said, 'I don't believe in you,' and held them back. And it becomes that arbitrary.
"Teacher discretion ought to be used to push you forward. But discretion should never hold you back when the objective data says you earned it," Carson added.
Oren Sellstrom, legal director of the San Francisco Bay Area Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said that such discretion, or bias, is often unconscious. Under disparate impact discrimination law, such discrimination even though it is unintentional is considered illegal.
Disparate impact law is often used to look at institutional discrimination, such as a city or school district policy that has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and cannot be justified.
"These practices are unjustified," Sellstrom said.
Sellstrom's organization has started to look at school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to identify what placement practices are most problematic. He said there are three: When there is no written policy to guide placement decisions; when placement relies at least in part on subjective factors, primarily teacher recommendations (when unconscious biases can come into play); and when there is little to no monitoring or accountability for the process.
He advocates for establishing clear, written policy; placing students based on objective factors, such as test scores and grades; and implementing ongoing monitoring and accountability.
A senate resolution introduced Aug. 19 by the chair of the black caucus, Senator Holly Mitchell, who represents District 26 in Southern California, also calls for these changes statewide.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights has asked various school districts to voluntarily comply with such changes, but those who don't could face civil rights complaints, Sellstrom said.
The Sequoia Union High School District has set an example for how to remedy the issue of math misplacement. After internally analyzing ninth-grade math data in 2011 and finding evidence of math misplacement, the district revised its placement procedures and implemented a more objective policy by the spring of 2012.
"As superintendent, I wholeheartedly believe that not only are we on the front line of the challenge, we are also a model for how to begin resolving this complex issue," Gloria Hernandez said.
The forum also heard from Marlyn Bussey, a longtime Sequoia district counselor who is now the pastor of a church in San Mateo. She told the caucus and audience that after reading the 2013 "Held Back" report, she launched various efforts to help alleviate the problem of math misplacement in her community. The church hosted a one-week math boot camp with 20 students, held mandatory parent empowerment workshops and brought in local students to tutor others on math twice a week.
"These kids want to learn; they want to be ready for school and our goal is to get every last one of them ready for high school geometry at best and algebra at a minimum so when they walk in the door, they're ready to use the first day of high school as preparation for their first day of college," Bussey said.