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What Every Student and Parent Needs to Know About Math Placement

What Every Student and Parent Needs to Know About Math Placement

Decisions you make in fifth grade can impact your entire life. If you don’t ace the right test, demonstrate the right behaviors, and earn the right grades in fifth grade, you might find yourself ineligible to apply to selective colleges. If you dreamt of attending schools like UCLA or Berkeley, that ship may have sailed before you even reached high school.

If you’re wondering how this can be true, the first piece of evidence is the current Mathematics Framework for California’s Public Schools (fortunately up for revision). Deep into the document on page 825 you will find an appendix titled Course Placement. This is where school districts are given guidance for placing students in accelerated, or compacted, courses, which means condensing multiple years of math classes into fewer years. This process is also called “tracking.” The idea is that students on an accelerated “track” can work their way into taking courses like AP Calculus in high school. In order for a student to take multiple AP math courses in high school, tracking begins in middle school; in California, tracking often starts in grade six.

Now maybe you’re wondering, “Do I need to take AP math courses to get accepted into selective colleges?” The answer is yes and no. If your high school offers those classes then, yes, the selective universities expect you will take them. But if your high school does not offer AP Calculus, for example, then you are off the hook and will not be penalized when you apply to college. You can call your school district to find out if they track and how they do it. But you might want to call it “acceleration” instead of tracking because tracking harms students and the term is a bit taboo. More on that later.

So, assuming your district “accelerates,” then how do you get placed in the right track so you can take AP math courses in high school? The answer is both complicated and simple. On the complicated side the process varies by school district and is probably not publicly stated anywhere. Someone, somewhere in the district will review data that likely includes grades, test scores, a placement test, and/or teacher recommendations and make their decision. If you can figure out who to ask, you can find out their formula. Now for the simple answer: A parent has the right to dictate the track for their child. When my son was moving to sixth grade, I learned that his fifth-grade teacher did not think he demonstrated enough maturity for advancement. I called the district and overrode her decision. It wasn’t easy and took several calls and emails, but I did it. Four year later when my daughter finished fifth grade, I just called her counselor at her future middle school and told her how I wanted her placed, regardless of any data they had collected. But I don’t recommend that you hop on the phone and make that call just yet. Do you remember that I mentioned that tracking harms students? Next, I will explain how it is harmful and how I know this to be true.

I know this to be true based on my expertise in the field. I have worked in math education for nearly three decades in just about every type of job available. I began as a math instructor teaching high school, college, and middle school, in that order. I have a degree in mathematics and earned a doctorate studying college math readiness. Ten years ago, I launched a non-profit organization that strives to improve college math readiness. I study the math progression of students from Kindergarten through college, day in and day out, pre-pandemic, and throughout the pandemic. I have read every version of California’s Math Framework, cover to cover. My organization has conducted several longitudinal research projects on this topic for which I served as Principal Investigator. I have spent twenty years providing professional services to schools to systemically improve student math outcomes. This is what I know and what I do.

I say all that to tell you I have consumed and created a ton of research on math pathways; the findings overwhelmingly suggest that tracking is harmful. Perhaps surprisingly, the practice is detrimental to both the students being accelerated and those left behind to languish in the realm of “regular” classes. Of course, there are students who find success within the system which is why I chose to accelerate my own kids. Those who do not succeed fall into two categories: Burnout in math for those in the rush to take Calculus, or Systemic Inequity for those left behind who are not eligible for acceptance to top colleges. So, pick your poison: burnout or systemic inequity.

If I am sending a message that you just need to hang in there through AP Calculus and you’re home free, then my apologies. There is another body of research suggesting students who take AP Calculus struggle in college calculus, especially those who earn a 3 (out of 5) on the AP exam. There are a few reasons for this but one of the easiest to understand is that college calculus is a multi-course sequence that is not aligned to AP Calculus. If a student earns a 3 or higher on the AP Calculus exam, they earn college credit and skip Calculus 1, but they may not be prepared for Calculus 2. Several colleges across the nation do not grant college credit for a score of 3, but many more still do. Whether students experience burnout, inequity, or course misalignment, the result is a dearth of college students completing degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). At many of our nation’s colleges, the graduation rate for STEM majors is in the single digits.

Given this knowledge, you may be wondering why I chose acceleration for my own children. The answer is, I had to. Since their schools use tracking, I know acceleration is the only way to keep their options open for college. Fortunately for them, I know the math content and can fill in the gaps when things move too fast. I can help them prepare for tests. I know what they need to know and when they need to know it. I also know teaching your own children can be a miserable experience for everyone involved, so I am dreading every second of it. I have asked my district to stop tracking, but they said they cannot. Here’s where you can help.

So now, what can you do? First, find out if your district uses tracking. If they do, it is likely because they have received pressure from parents to give their children more opportunities to take challenging college-level classes in high school. There are two flaws with using tracking to achieve this end: one is the assumption that AP courses are the only option, and the second is the misconception that faster is better. For the latter, I assure you that cramming in more math in a shorter time is detrimental to student learning. Students learn more, and retain more, if they can dive deeply into a topic and take more time to build a solid foundation in mathematics. For the former, there are other options beyond AP. Take a look at Dinuba High School, for example. They do not track and the school offers four different dual-enrollment college math courses for seniors to take for free during their regular school day. Calculus is offered in partnership with the local college, so it aligns to the next course in the sequence. This year, nearly one-third of Dinuba’s seniors took college-level courses in their senior year which is a much higher participation rate than most schools’ AP math classes. Eighty-five percent of the students passed the classes, earning college math credit. In the calculus course, the pass rate was 100%.

Ultimately you want to do what is best for your own child, but in order to do that you need to know how school system processes work. Many inequitable policies like math placement exist and continue because they are not challenged. As children grow into middle and high school, parent involvement decreases. It is vital that you stay involved. Pressure the schools to reverse course so your children are not harmed by policies that foster inequity, burnout, or poor preparation for college. And communicate to the CA Math Framework committee that you support a revision that ends tracking and supports equitable opportunities for all students.