Six years ago, Los Altos High School staff was convinced they had the silver bullet for preparing students for college. The thinking was that students who can make it through Algebra II by the time they graduate would have the tools needed to apply to four-year state universities, closing long-standing achievement gaps between ethnic groups.
But after making a successful push to shepherd all students through more rigorous math courses -- irrespective of race, socioeconomic status and whether their parents went to college -- gaps still remain. Nearly half of the school's Latino students aren't meeting all the requirements to apply for prestigious California universities.
"We haven't seen much change over the past five years," said Los Altos principal Wynne Satterwhite. "So Algebra II is not the answer, even though we were sure it was going to be."
Slow or stalled progress in narrowing all facets of the achievement gap, from state test scores to enrollment in extracurricular activities, was a common theme at the Dec. 16 Mountain View-Los Altos High School District board meeting as school staff laid out ambitious plans to ensure students from all backgrounds succeed at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools.
Though the goals were ostensibly for students deemed "critical learners," including special education students and teens whose parents did not go to college, the bulk of the reports focused on Latino student achievement. State standardized test scores, GPA and performance on Advanced Placement (AP) tests all show a disparity between Latino students and their white and Asian peers across both campuses.
Los Altos staff in recent years sought to close the gap in the A-G requirements, a series of courses that are baked into the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) admission requirements. In the 2014-15 school year, only 52% of Latino students met those requirements, compared with 83% of white and 97% of Asian students. As of the 2018-19 school year, the numbers haven't changed much -- 55% of Latino students meet the requirements, compared with 82% of white and 90% of Asian students.
Although Algebra II is seen nationally as a gatekeeper for students trying to complete their A-G requirements, and the completion rates for the class are "amazing," Satterwhite said school officials are still not seeing the change they expected. The working theory now is that math was only a part of the problem, and that more needs to be done to encourage students to sign up and complete world language courses and other classes required to get into California universities.
Similar performance gaps among Latino students are peppered throughout the reports from both schools. At Mountain View High, the number of freshmen students with a 3.0 GPA or higher is significantly lower among Latino students -- 38% -- than white (83%) and Asian students (91%). Outside of core classes, Los Altos High staff found only 19% of Latino students participated in cocurricular or extracurricular activities, compared with 38% among the school's overall population.
Graduation rates have also declined among Latino students, which had previously been close to 100%. The percentage of seniors who graduated in 2014-15 at Mountain View High was 95%, which has since decreased to 81% last year.
Both schools show more Latino students are taking AP tests each year, but the passing rate is low when compared with white and Asian students. The latest data shows the gap is more pronounced at Mountain View High, where 56% of Latino test takers had passed with a score of three or higher. The passage rate was 84% among white students and 89% among Asian students during the same year.
The sobering data, which school officials say will be improved as part of an "action plan" taking place over six years, adds substantial detail to statewide testing data that has long showed performance among low-income, minority and English learner students falls behind white and Asian students and kids from more affluent families.
The tests, administered to juniors in the spring, show that fewer than one in three Latino students who took the test last year met state standards for math, falling well below white (80.6%) and Asian (86.4%) students. Smaller gaps were present in English language arts. Despite the sizable difference, the school district is hardly alone: Santa Clara County at large reported an even bigger delta in performance among 11th grade students based on ethnicity across both English and math.
Both annual reports are available online on the district's website.