Santa Clara County’s superior court ruled in February that Palo Alto Unified School District’s math placement policy violates the 2015 California Math Placement Act, setting off widespread debate amongst community members over math policies. The act requires schools with students entering ninth grade to adopt a “fair, objective and transparent” math placement policy.
In response to the ruling, the district made the controversial decision to eliminate the option for high school students to take multivariable calculus and linear algebra through PAUSD. The board claimed that this was due to a policy change made in 2021 by the California Department of Education, which left PAUSD without a properly credentialed teacher.
Community members protested this change and rallied for PAUSD to restore the class, collecting over 400 signatures in an open letter to the district. PAUSD has since announced that Foothill Community College will offer in-person multivariable calculus for high school students at Palo Alto High School next school year.
Still, controversy over the district’s math policies remains. The February ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of Palo Alto parents in July 2021, which argued that the district’s policies limit students’ ability to advance in the district’s math program.
The plaintiffs argued that there was only one option allowing students to advance beyond the normal pace: “validation tests,” which consisted of a state-standardized test and a district-created test, which restricted advancement and achievement at a high level.
“[The district-created test] is not calibrated, has highly variable results, includes material that is far beyond the scope of the grade level students are looking to skip, is not objectively scored and lacks all transparency,” the lawsuit stated.
The opportunities PAUSD provides to advance in the math program are based on “bogus tests” often designed so that students are unsuccessful in math before they start high school, the lawsuit stated.
“No effort is made to objectively determine whether students’ knowledge and skill in math places them in more advanced programs,” Judge Carrie Zepeda said.
With the ruling, the district has been ordered to revise their math placement policy in a way that allows students to advance through the math program more easily. But according to PAUSD parent and lawsuit advisor Avery Wang, even after the compliance hearing in late April, PAUSD hasn’t made appropriate changes to the policies.
“We found that [the district] basically didn’t change anything,” Wang said. “The judge found at the … compliance hearing that PAUSD was largely out of compliance, still.”
Due to the lawsuit, the PAUSD administration unanimously decided in March to remove off-campus course grades from the official grade point average calculations. Beginning this summer, courses taken off-campus will only be listed as “credit” or “no credit” on student transcripts, with a few exceptions.
Community members have speculated that the removal of multivariable calculus and linear algebra was also due to the lawsuit, though Superintendent Don Austin and board members said that the decision was outside of PAUSD’s control.
“Nobody’s against the course,” Austin said at the April board meeting. “The problem in this case is truly credentialing right now. … This should not be confused with a lack of understanding of the importance of the course or a desire to in any way impede students from taking these courses.”
While the community has voiced support for higher level math classes, there are also many who believe advanced math classes such as multivariable calculus are not necessary for a well-rounded high school education and go beyond the scope of high school curriculum.
“PAUSD isn’t restricting your access to public school education in any way,” Paly student board representative Johannah Seah said. “I understand where you’re coming from if you feel that you’re restricted, but … the point of the public school is to provide you first state level education.”
In a competitive academic environment like Palo Alto, community members have also brought up the topic of how math policies affect student mental health and wellbeing.
“If students feel that they’re not challenged in math, they should seek other options outside the school,” Henry M. Gunn student board representative Daniel Pan said at a board meeting in March. “We should not be changing a system to promote more competition and continue brewing our already toxic culture.”
Others have been pushing back against the idea that providing opportunities for students to take advanced classes results in worsened mental health.
“From what I understand, based on the Center for Disease Control, they did a study and they didn’t find that academic stress was a major cause of suicide across all of Santa Clara,” Wang said. “The major cause is mental illness, anxiety [and] depression, but it turns out that academic engagement is protective against suicide.”
The upcoming June 6 board meeting will cover dual-enrollment policies. The board also expects to hear further comments about advanced math classes at the meeting.
Mateo Espinoza contributed to the reporting in this story. This is a developing story.