Fair, objective and transparent: Keys to ensuring equitable math placement
The shift toward implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics has created opportunities for innovation as well as new challenges at the district and school-site level.
Chief among these challenges is ensuring that all students have equal opportunity to access high-quality math programming. A critical component to ensuring access to high-level course work for all students is for districts to develop a clear process for appropriate math course placement decisions.
According to a report released in 2013 by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco Bay Area, in many districts, high school freshmen who have successfully completed Algebra I in eighth grade are again placed in an Algebra I class in ninth grade. The report also found that the practice of having ninth grade students repeat Algebra I disproportionately affects students of color and students from low-income families. While its significance is not always recognized, inappropriate placement may impede a student’s ability to complete the sequence of coursework required for college admission and therefore affect future earning power and other measures of success.

The California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015 addresses this issue by establishing a mandate for districts to develop and adopt fair, objective and transparent math placement policies. To comply with this mandate, many school districts have already adopted CSBA sample Board Policy 6152.1 – Placement in Mathematics Courses. Now CSBA, with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, is working to further assist its members by creating new resources to aid in the implementation of the policy.

  • Inappropriate math placement affects a student’s trajectory through school and may affect college admission
  • The California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015 requires districts to develop and adopt fair, objective and transparent math placement policies.
The California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015 requires districts to develop and adopt fair, objective and transparent math placement policies.
To date, CSBA has consulted with a diverse sample of districts and county offices of education from around the state to better understand their practices and the challenges of implementation. Some common challenges include identifying data and placement trends, communicating reliable and objective placement criteria, and addressing alignment issues within and across schools.
Three key successful practices have emerged for board members to consider:
  • Analyzing mathematics course placement data
    What does district data show? Are there patterns of placement based on student group demographics such as race, ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background? What are the placement trends for English learners, and what steps has the district taken to ensure that assessments used for ELs are accurately measuring mathematical proficiency instead of English language proficiency? Districts should ask these questions and establish a process for the regular review of placement data.
  • Developing clear tools and a communication strategy
    Encourage the development of recommended course sequences (math pathways) and a placement matrix or clear protocol for making placement decisions. These tools should identify course options, the multiple academic measures being used to make placement decisions and timelines, as well as opportunities and procedures for appealing placement decisions. Ensure that this information is communicated clearly to all stakeholders including administrators, school principals, counselors, teachers, parents and students.
  • Identify consistent practices and articulation with feeder schools and districts
    Work with feeder schools and districts to ensure compatibility of criteria for determining math placement. Successful practices have included scheduling regular articulation meetings with feeder districts.
For additional required mathematics placement policy components, please refer to CSBA’s sample BP 6152.1 – Placement in Mathematics Courses. Supplementary resources will be issued in the coming months.