A Bay Area civil rights advocacy group released a report late last month claiming the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District is among several school districts in the area that disproportionately place minority students in lower-level math classes in ninth grade, leaving them behind their peers and reducing their chances of getting accepted into college.
A 37-page report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR) found that Latino and African-American students are far more likely to get placed in algebra than their white and Asian peers, despite the fact that the students meet or exceed standards that would allow them to take geometry in their freshman year.
The civil rights group specifically points to the Mountain View-Los Altos district, where the 24 percent of Latinos and the 2 percent of African-Americans who make up the student body are "disproportionately" placed in algebra in their freshman year. The exact number of students affected was not provided in the report.
"The high numbers of minority students misplaced in algebra in ninth grade raises concerns of racial bias and discrimination in the placement process," the report states.
Superintendent Barry Groves said the district "vigorously denies" that it holds minority students back in ninth-grade math classes, and said he was perplexed that the LCCR didn't contact district. He said the group based its analysis on public records requests but did not release the more district-specific data it used to come to its conclusion.
"I am very incensed that they would publish this without ever talking with us, without ever asking if this makes sense. Nobody has ever contacted us at all," Groves said.
According to the report, the most common misplacement of African-American and Hispanic students in a math class happens when a student finishes algebra in middle school but is forced to repeat the course again in the first year of high school. The report says that the middle school grades and test scores of a number of these students are on par with their peers of other ethnic backgrounds.
Of the students surveyed in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, 51 percent of Latino students and 53 percent of African- Americans took algebra in eighth grade, but only 16.5 percent of Latinos and 17.8 percent of African-Americans go on to take geometry in ninth grade -- substantially lower than their Asian and white peers.
Starting out behind means these students are not likely to reach higher-level math classes like calculus by their senior year, which can decrease their chances of getting accepted into a college or university after graduation, the report says. By missing out on higher-level math, students are also frozen out of highly valued jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the report says.
LCCR member Dana Isaac said the advocacy group does a lot of work in the field of education, and was hearing stories from people who said they had been put in the wrong math class by their school district, oftentimes taking the exact same class in ninth grade that they had taken the year before. Whenever the issue is brought up at community forums, she said, someone in the audience "without fail" will always say he or she got stuck in the wrong class.
The issue is two-fold when minority students are held back, she said. They have to compete with a disadvantage when applying for highly competitive University of California schools, but it also has a psychological effect as well.
"On a personal, mental level, being held back is being told 'you are not good at math' and 'opportunities in math are not your strong suit," Isaac said.
While the problem is regional, Isaac said, it's important to focus on Mountain View-Los Altos because it's in the center of the tech industry -- right next door to Google -- which similarly lacks a strong minority presence. The nearby schools, she said, may be a contributing factor.
She said the district also has no written math placement policy, which means nothing ensures that students who pass algebra in middle school are headed for geometry in their freshman year.
In response to Groves' charge that the LCCR didn't contact the district before releasing its report, Isaac said the district was contacted in the sense that the LCCR was requesting the public records indicating how many students are being placed in what classes in their freshman year, and that the district was well aware the group was looking into the issue.
Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf, who said she was "appalled" by the claims in the report, has been reviewing transcripts this week of individual students going back four years to see if the problem really exists and if minority students are, in fact, being misplaced in math classes.
She said of the roughly 1,000 Latino and African-American students she has looked at so far, she could find only 27 students whose placement in algebra was questionable and probably could have been reviewed.
Sarraf said it would have been good for the group to come to the district and consult staff on the data it requested, which she said can be seriously misleading. Four years of big changes in the public school system can make it hard to tell what class students should be placed in the following year, she said. She speaks by phone with Mountain View Whisman School District's director of curriculum, Cathy Baur, every year trying to figure out the content of classes like "pre-algebra support," and whether they are a direct lead-in to geometry, she said.
How 'open' is open access?
Unlike some school districts, the Mountain View-Los Altos district has an "open access" policy for math class enrollment. Under the policy, students do not need to rely on past courses taken, test scores or grades to get into classes like geometry.
That policy may suggest that traditional barriers to enrollment in these classes are removed, and that it would be easier for disadvantaged students to dive into tougher classes, but Isaac believes such a policy can be deceptively unfair.
By suspending any requirements, she said, the district puts the burden of knowing what classes to sign up for on the parents and students themselves, rather than the school district, which means the burden is shifted onto the families to advocate for their kids and get them into the right classes. Parents whose first language is not English may not have a clear sense of what classes their kids need to sign up for, she said.
"It takes a certain institutional awareness to navigate the education realm," Isaac said.
Senate Resolution 60, adopted by the state Senate last year, encourages local school boards to develop a "transparent" mathematics placement policy that should take into account placement tests, statewide assessments, grades and coursework. Among other things, the resolution points to students' being misplaced in math courses as a serious concern, with the "most egregious" cases happening among the disproportionately misplaced minority students.
Sarraf called the idea expressed by Isaac that the open access policy bars minority students "infuriating." Working with the district for 45 years, she said, she's been through many iterations of math-placement policies, and the ones with well-defined requirements have been far more restrictive and keep students out of classes for things like low performance on a single test.
"These are all well-intended strategies, but the end results really didn't favor students in the past," Sarraf said.
With open access, she said, the difference is like night and day.
"I cannot tell you how many students came in with tears that they didn't make it into a class with the black-and-white system," she said.
Groves said the district doubled the number of Latino students taking the more rigorous math classes since it adopted open access. He said families do not have to go it alone advocating for themselves, and that there are plenty of counseling staff in the schools to help guide both parents and students to sign up for the right classes.
"We don't blindly let students make their decision without knowing how they're doing. We give them recommendations, but it's up to them to make the decision," Groves said.
No interest in a lawsuit
Despite the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights report's detail on grounds for a lawsuit against school districts that allegedly have racially biased math placement policies, Isaac said the LCCR's intent is not to sue individual school districts. The group has successfully litigated in the past, she said, but the real goal is to overcome what appears to be a systemic problem in the way minority students are placed in classes.
"Our hope is always to be able to work this out with the district and, essentially, the end goal is to make sure kids end up in the correct math classes," she said.
Isaac said the plan is to meet with residents and community groups in Mountain View in the next week or so to go over the data and better assess the problem.
Meanwhile, Sarraf said she will continue to dig through the transcripts of thousands of high school students, including white and Asian students, to see if there exists any kind of discrepancy in math placement.
She said that the report's findings regarding the MVLA district are likely incorrect, and the number of misplaced students is probably small, but she will still consult with the principals and see what they think as well. It's always possible, she said, that there is some deep-seated issue in student placement into math classes.
"I'm pretty sure that is not the conclusion I'm going to find," she said.