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Improving Math Placement Decisions

Linda Strean November 28, 2016
photo - Students Helping Each Other

A new state law is intended to help ensure that all students—particularly those underrepresented in higher education—have access to rigorous math courses in high school. This is a key step to improving college readiness and closing achievement gaps. The centerpiece of the California Mathematics Placement Act is the requirement that districts create and implement a fair, objective, and transparent math placement policy. The law leaves many aspects of implementation up to the districts.

PPIC surveyed the state’s school districts during the 2015–16 school year to examine their placement policies and identify district needs right before the law took effect in 2016–17. In a new report, Math Placement in California’s Public Schools, research fellow Niu Gao and research associate Sara Adan found that districts face a number of challenges in implementing the law. Gao presented the report at a recent Sacramento briefing.

One issue is particularly complex: teacher recommendations. The new law calls for limiting their use due to concerns that they may be systematically biased against economically disadvantaged or Latino and African American students.

The PPIC report shows that teacher recommendations are among the most widely used measures in determining placement—and the way they are used now is complicated. Recommendations typically address both academic and “soft” skills, such as student maturity, persistence, and motivation, which are predictors of student success. The PPIC authors found cases in which teacher recommendations are biased against high-achieving minority students, but they also found cases in which teacher recommendations are advancing minority students who do not perform well on standardized tests. In other words, eliminating recommendations altogether may help some students but at the expense of others.

Gao said the critical issue is not whether teacher recommendations should be used but how they can be designed to complement objective measures, such as tests.

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