A judge has ruled that the Palo Alto Unified School District's method of placing students in high school math classes violates state law and has ordered the district to submit a math placement policy for the court to review.
The district's high school math placement system doesn't comply with the Mathematics Placement Act of 2015, Judge Carrie Zepeda determined in an order filed Feb. 6. Palo Alto Unified was given 30 days to submit a math placement policy to the court, with a compliance hearing scheduled for March 13.
The order stems from a lawsuit parents filed in 2021, alleging that the school district's math placement process stops students from taking more advanced classes in violation of state law.
The judge agreed that the high school math system violates the Math Placement Act. Middle school math placement — which parents also objected to — isn't addressed in the judge's order. The Math Placement Act creates rules only for high school math placement while leaving those requirements optional at the middle school level. The lawsuit also alleged that the district's math system disadvantages girls in violation of Title IX, but Zepeda ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support that claim.
The district's current set-up means that most kids start freshman year taking geometry, with some retaking Algebra 1, if that's deemed necessary. Students who pass a "skip test" in middle school can accelerate to take Algebra 2/trigonometry as freshmen. The district's website also lists certain procedures for students to challenge their high school math placement.
The Math Placement Act requires districts to have a "multi-point, objective, fair and transparent placement process for all incoming ninth grade students." Zepeda ruled that Palo Alto Unified's current system doesn't meet that requirement.
Districts are required to take "multiple objective academic measures of pupil performance into account" when determining placement.
"The adopted math placement policy presented to the court by PAUSD has none of the objective academic measures required by the statute for proper math placement of ninth grade students," Zepeda wrote. "In practice, PAUSD does not use any objective academic measures to properly place incoming high school students in math classes."
She went on to say that the placement policy is solely based on which class a student took in eighth grade.
The law also requires a "placement checkpoint" within the first month of school. According to Zepeda, Palo Alto currently gives a "readiness" test to figure out if students are prepared for their current class, but not whether that class is the right one for the student.
Zepeda ordered the district to present a math placement policy to the court within 30 days; those who filed the suit will then be given 10 days to respond with any objections. The policy needs to meet various requirements, including having standardized assessments to determine placement, procedures and timelines for collecting and reporting math placement data to the school board, and procedures for students and parents to challenge a child's ninth grade math placement.
The judge also ruled that if a student completes a course that meets University of California entrance requirements in Algebra I, Geometry or Algebra II outside the district, that student can't be required to take another class at the same level in the district.
Reaction to the decision
The parents who filed the suit welcomed the judge's order, celebrating the changes that it may bring to the district's math system. Edith Cohen, the lead plaintiff on the suit, said that all four of her children experienced issues with the district's math placement process. According to Cohen, the system to advance in math is confusing and doesn't allow students who are ready for more difficult coursework to move ahead.
"It was a pattern that I experienced with all of my kids," Cohen said.
She called the decision "hugely important" and said that she hopes the judge's order will lead to changes in other districts with similar math systems.
The school district, for its part, attributed the issues the judge identified largely to a lack of clarity on the district's part about what its current policies entail.
"We can see that we could have done a better job of explaining and ensuring that the information regarding our ninth grade math policies were clear and accessible on our website," Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Guillermo Lopez said.
The district has since redesigned the webpage that provides information on the district's math program. Lopez also pointed to existing board policies on the topic, including Board Policy 6152.1, which governs placements in math classes, and BP 6155, which states that high schoolers can take an exam to challenge taking a course.
Superintendent Don Austin also addressed the topic in his weekly email to families on Feb. 24, writing that the current system has students take Algebra I in eighth grade, a year ahead of many districts in the state.
"We believe that the PAUSD program provides a solid foundation for all students at an age-appropriate pace," Austin said.
Middle school math placement
The judge's order doesn't address the middle school math program, to which those backing the lawsuit also object.
The district redesigned its middle school math system in 2019, with the changes taking effect in the fall of 2020. The pilot program moves away from a "laned" structure, in which students are grouped by ability level, to instead focus on having a shared sequence of classes that students move through together.
Students complete Algebra I in eighth grade so that they can begin geometry as freshman. Those who want to move faster can take a validation test at the end of fifth, sixth or seventh grade to skip the following year's course, allowing them to take geometry in eighth grade, according to the district's website. Students are only allowed to skip one grade level during middle school.
Some parents have objected to the middle school skip tests, alleging that they are unnecessarily difficult, produce highly variable results and aren't transparent.
Cohen said that while the order doesn't force changes to the middle school system, she believes that it will put pressure on the district to make changes, especially because it requires the district to report math placement data to the board.
"It will also shine a light on how senseless the whole thing that is happening before high school is," Cohen said.
Some parents spoke during the public comment portion of the school board's Feb. 28 meeting, urging the board to agendize the issue of middle school math.
Currently, 94 eighth graders have successfully skipped ahead to take geometry in eighth grade, representing about 12% of eighth graders, Austin told parents.
Proponents of de-laning middle school math note that the old system meant that sixth-graders had to pick a math pathway that would impact them throughout the rest of middle and high school.
Students mature a great deal throughout middle school, district board member Jesse Ladomirak said, adding that those three years are a "lifetime" for many kids.
"We were basically deciding where a kid was going to end up as a senior in high school when they were 11," Ladomirak said. "The new system gives those kids a chance to live that three year lifetime that happens at their own pace to not be effectively penalized for taking a little bit longer to transition from early childhood."
Board President Jennifer DiBrienza added that middle school can be a difficult time for students and that the de-laned system allows students to be in classes with peers of the same age, who are in a similar place developmentally.
Because the current middle school math system was implemented in 2020, students who were in sixth grade when it began are now in eighth grade. DiBrienza said that she looks forward to seeing how those kids fare in high school math next year.
As of Thursday afternoon, the district had not yet filed its response to the judge's order.