Two groups claiming that the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District had a discriminatory math placement policy have withdrawn their complaint to the Office for Civil Rights, following the board's decision to adopt a more rigid set of standards for deciding which class ninth-graders will take.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, announced Tuesday that they are no longer seeking a federal investigation into the district. Both groups signed a letter, sent on Aug. 24, to the Office for Civil Rights in San Francisco urging a federal investigation into the district, alleging that it had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The letter claims the district had a discriminatory practice where ninth-grade minority students were disproportionately placed in lower-level math classes.
Through several Public Records Act requests, the committee pieced together data from the district showing that Latino and African-American students who had taken algebra in eighth grade were being disproportionately placed in algebra again in ninth grade rather than advancing to geometry. A report from the committee shows 92.9 percent of white students advanced to geometry from algebra in ninth grade, compared to 61 percent of African-American students and 71.7 percent of Latino students.
The crux of the issue was the district's math placement policy. Up until this week, the district had an "open enrollment" policy where students entering ninth grade had the freedom to choose which math course to take, with initial placement based on teacher recommendations and grades.
The civil rights complaint alleges that the policy is "confusing" and based on subjective measures, which allows for "unconscious bias and stereotyping" by teachers when they decide which students are fit to move on to higher math. Students ultimately may decide which math class is the best fit for them, but it is unlikely that they will disregard the teacher recommendation, according to the complaint.
At the request of Superintendent Jeff Harding, the district agreed at the Oct. 12 board meeting to adopt a new math policy, which clearly outlines the objective measures -- placement tests, standardized tests and grades -- and severely downplays the use of subjective measures like recommendations.
"We are pleased that the MVLA is poised to implement a comprehensive policy that treats all students fairly," said Kimberly Thomas Rapp, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee, in a statement. "We applaud the district's new superintendent for the important first step of developing a written policy."
Harding said the district was not contacted by the Office for Civil Rights at any point regarding the complaint, but that the Lawyers' Committee did notify him about the letter they planned to send to the federal office.
When the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights lobbed its first complaint against the district by way of an op-ed in the Voice, district staff fiercely defended the district and denied the notion that the district was, consciously or unconsciously, holding back minority students in math. Former superintendent Barry Groves said the group made no effort to contact the district to see if the numbers checked out.
Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf responded to the criticism by going through student transcripts and found that out of roughly 1,000 Latino and African-American students, only 27 had placement in algebra that she found questionable and probably could have been reviewed.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights took issue with that, and wrote in the complaint that "the assistant superintendent's dismissive statements not only minimize the significance of even one case of math misplacement, but also indicates that MVLA does not regularly review its students' files to determine if they are being equitable and appropriately placed."
A kink in the STEM pipeline
In the June op-ed, members of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights asserted that discriminatory math policies in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District was just a local example of how minorities are getting shut out of the high-paying tech jobs in the Bay Area.
The group published a report in 2013 that found minority students throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties were being disproportionately placed into algebra in ninth grade. In a sense, these students start out high school behind their peers, and are not likely to reach calculus or AP statistics by their senior year. Students who fail to take higher levels of math in high school are at a disadvantage when applying for college, and are less likely to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
"Without advanced math classes in high school, a student is effectively frozen out of the highly compensated, highly sought after fields of STEM," the report states.
The op-ed specifically targeted the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, which is "just down the road from Google's headquarters" and other Bay Area tech giants that lack a minority presence. One of the authors of the op-ed, Dana Isaac, told the Voice in June that the nearby schools could be a contributing factor in the lack of diversity in the tech industry.
Pressured to change?
Both the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation claimed, in the press release Tuesday, that the district had adopted the new math policy under pressure from the civil rights complaint as well as changes to state law.
The new math placement policy certainly does seem well-timed. Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 359 into law on Oct. 5, which requires districts with eighth and ninth-grade students to explicitly state their math placement policies, instead of more vague guidelines. The goal of the bill is for school districts to adopt fair, objective and transparent placement policies, and is intended to increase the number of minority students pursuing STEM careers.
The Silicon Valley Community Foundation sponsored the bill, dubbed the California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015, as a way of reducing the achievement gap and developing a diverse workforce. The bill marks the first state legislation that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation has sponsored.
Harding said the district has been debating the merits of changing the math policy for a while, going back to 2013 when the report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights was released. In light of SB 359 getting signed into law, he said, the district took a proactive approach.
"We're going to be required to do this anyway before the next school year, and this is an opportunity to get ahead of it," Harding said.