The Palo Alto Unified School District is facing a lawsuit that alleges the district's math-placement process improperly stops students from taking more advanced classes and particularly disadvantages girls.
The lawsuit claims that the district discourages and prevents students from taking math classes in which they would be able to succeed, stating that the district replaces legal requirements for math placement with its "own moral judgment about how parents should be raising their children."
"PAUSD intentionally and systematically targets talented math students and denies them earned opportunities to be exceptional. … PAUSD's overriding message is a PAUSD value judgment that parents push students too hard," the lawsuit states.
Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin declined to comment for this article, and the district did not provide a copy of its legal response to the suit.
Math instruction has long been a contentious topic in the school district. In recent years, Palo Alto Unified has reviewed and changed its math program, with a particular focus on reducing gaps in achievement between students, including an attempt to increase the performance of low-income students and students of color.
The current lawsuit was filed in July by Edith Cohen, Xin Li, Yiyi Zeng and Marek Alboszta. Cohen, Li and Zeng are all identified as Palo Alto homeowners with children. Cohen has had children in the Palo Alto Unified School District since 2003, according to the suit, while Li and Zeng are simply identified as having school-age children. Alboszta is listed as a "Palo Alto patent agent."
According to the petitioners, the district doesn't have a policy that meets the requirements of the Math Placement Act, passed by the California legislature in 2015, and the procedures it does use differ from those it lists online.
The lawsuit claims that the district's ninth grade math placement is based only on the student's eighth grade math class results, despite the district stating that it considers more factors.
The only chance students have to advance beyond the normal sequence of courses is at the end of fifth and sixth grade, when students can take "validation tests" to skip the next grade level in math, according to the suit.
Those tests are made up of both a standardized exam and one created by the district, the lawsuit states, going on to claim that the district-created portion "is not calibrated, has highly variable results, includes material that is far beyond the scope of the grade level students are looking to skip, is not objectively scored and lacks all transparency."
"Their high school placement and all opportunities to excel in math are based on bogus tests designed so that students fail and are railroaded two to three years before they start high school," the suit states.
In 2019, the school district redesigned its middle school math program, with the goal of providing all middle schoolers a pathway to take geometry their freshman year of high school.
The district's middle school math sequence now typically involves finishing algebra 8 by the end of eighth grade, though passing the validation tests allows students to skip one grade level and complete geometry in eighth grade.
According to a middle school math FAQ posted on Palo Alto Unified's website, the district acknowledges that "a very large percentage" of students are above grade level in math, while also focusing its attention on closing the achievement gap.
"Experts in mathematics education agree that tracking (or laning) students early in their education limits both high and low performing students, which ultimately leads to lower achievement overall," the district's FAQ states. "Heterogeneous classes result in a deeper understanding of mathematics for the high achieving students, while simultaneously raising the achievement of struggling students."
The lawsuit goes on to claim that the validation tests disadvantage girls. According to the suit, in the past two years, 127 middle school boys have been allowed to accelerate their math placement, but only 35 girls.
Because the district offers few opportunities to advance in math, the suit states that many students choose to take accredited math classes outside of the district. However, the petitioners claim that the district "repeatedly denies" student requests to skip courses they have already taken outside of the district.
Forcing students to take classes they have already mastered causes them to lose interest in math and hinders their ability to attend highly selective schools, according to the lawsuit.
"PAUSD's math placement causes substantial and immediate harm to its students starting in middle school and continuing through high school and college," the suit states. "Students stuck in math classes they have already mastered are bored and quickly lose interest in excelling in math."