All kids deserve an equal chance to succeed. Unfortunately, many achieving African-American and Latino students in California schools are being unfairly denied advancement to the mathematics courses critical to their educational and career success. Despite earning the grades and assessment test scores that show promise of their ability to benefit from instruction in higher math, too many are not getting into the classes they need and can handle. This phenomenon, “math misplacement,” can be scholastically catastrophic, derailing and discouraging students from a college trajectory by costing them at least one of the three years of advanced math required for admission to UC or CSU.
Turning away the least privileged youths from math’s super-highway to careers makes it more difficult to break the cycle of poverty that affects many Latino and African-American families. It also hurts our state and nation’s ability to compete in a global market increasingly driven by skilled computation.
The 2010 Noyce Foundation Pathways Report found that African-American and Latino students were being improperly held back in nine Bay Area school districts despite having demonstrated proficiency on state standardized math tests. The reasons some students get misplaced may reflect disadvantages in treatment, background or schooling. In the Noyce study the causes, of whatever origin, were found to be unrelated to the individual’s ability to master the subject matter.
While California increasingly depends for growth on jobs and revenue from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) industries such as technology, that sector depends on California to provide a trained and adept workforce. Yet a Brookings Institute Report last July showed the United States does not have enough qualified STEM workers to meet employer demand. African Americans and Latinos make up only three to four percent of technology workers at the six largest Silicon Valley tech companies. Given that 58% of California’s child population now belong to these ethnic groups, while STEM jobs will grow by 22% in the state over the next five years, opening the pipeline for children of color into the state’s growth industry is crucial for both them and the state.
Unless more Latinos and African Americans pursue STEM careers, the large majority of people in our state will be unprepared to compete for middle-class jobs or to pump prime the economy. If the state cannot produce a workforce with the skills employers demand, and employees’ families need, those jobs will go elsewhere, beyond our cities, our state and even our nation.
At the root of the problem is a systemic issue—California does not require school districts to develop or adopt fair and transparent math placement policies. In the absence of such policies, students are more susceptible to being misplaced, resulting in more students being thrown off the college and career tracks likely to lead to employment in STEM or other professional fields.
With the link between math misplacement, STEM worker shortages and persistent poverty now clearly visible, California cannot afford to allow students who are overcoming challenges in their backgrounds to lose earned places in high school mathematics. Time to make sure our future workforce is properly prepared, while eliminating barriers that obstruct students from breaking the cycle of poverty and sharing in the prosperity of high-earning STEM careers.
Ed’s Note: State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, D-South Los Angeles, is the author of SB 359 to mandate grades and assessment tests as the primary basis for public school math placement decisions.