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Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Mathematics education is at a crossroads. College readiness fell to its lowest point since 2004, a trend that scares me to death.

SBAC testing season is underway, while at the same time school districts are deeply engaged in preparing their 2019-2022 LCAPs. The process of annually updating the LCAP is based on analyzing the previous year's data. In the case of academic achievement, it's primarily measured by analyzing SBAC data, including comparing local SBAC results to State averages. It’s no great surprise that by 2018, students currently in the 4th and 5th grade experienced nearly double-digit gains in ELA and mathematics since the inception of the SBAC. After all, students currently in the 4th and 5th grade received Common Core standards-aligned instruction since Kindergarten. Even in mathematics, which lags well behind ELA, there have been gains. The achievement gap remains, but at least there has been progress.

Whether the progress justifies the $200+ billion spent since the LCFF’s equity formula changed the way California funded its schools remains a topic of debate under the header: Does Money Matter.

The reason for the debate is that low-income students increased scores by only 2.2

percentage points in English language arts and only 1.7 percentage points in math. Overall 37.7% of low-income students met or exceeded standards in English language arts, compared with 69.3% of their wealthier peers. In mathematics, 26.2% met or exceeded standards in math compared with 58.4% of their wealthier peers.

In the least successful school districts (often the poorest) the percentages are considerably lower than 37.7% in ELA and 26.2% in math (compare your district to these percentages - how much lower are they?).

The highest level of concern is among high school students, who experienced another big drop in scores in 2018. In English language arts, about 50% of high school juniors overall met or exceeded the standards while only 39% met or exceeded standards in math. Gaps among

ethnic, racial and income groups remain wide too, and in some instances have grown wider.

Only 19.7% of African-American students are at or above standards in math, compared with 53.6% of whites and 74.6% of Asians. And their growth over four years, 3.7 percentage points, is about 1 percentage point less than whites and Asians. While an increase of 5.7 percentage points in math and 7.2 percentage points in ELA among Hispanic students is encouraging, it’s still about 25 percentage points below whites and 37 percentage points below Asians, mitigating any narrowing of the achievement gap.

The low math scores extend well beyond the SBAC and can be examined through the lens of college entrance exams. Among students who took the ACT college-entrance exam in 2018, math readiness was at a 14-year low. In Condition of College and Career Readiness, a report published by ACT, only 40% of 2018 graduates taking the ACT met a benchmark indicating they could succeed in a first-year college algebra class. That is down from 41% the previous year and five percentage points lower than the high of 46% in 2012. We’re going backwards.

The Chief Executive of ACT, which now exceeds the SAT in test takers, noted that there is a high risk for the U.S. economy coming to a slowdown or a standstill given our inability to prepare students for STEM fields.

Hispanic and black students continue to lag behind their white and Asian counterparts. Asians are the best prepared group as a whole, with their average composite ACT score rising in 2018. Average scores for all other racial and ethnic groups went down. Underserved learners, defined as minority, low-income or first-generation college students, fared the worse.

Mathematics education is at a crossroads. College readiness fell to its lowest point since 2004, a trend that has worried math educators. Most experts call for a comprehensive restructuring of how high schools deliver mathematics. A NCTM report, Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations, addressed the concerns and made recommendations, including ending the practice of tracking. Placing students in different levels of mathematics has proven to be unsuccessful.

Far too many students are placed in classes that are not rigorous. The other primary recommendations are to provide teachers more professional learning and more time to collaborate.

The evidence is clear: students meeting or exceeding benchmarks are more likely to earn a college degree. The lack of progress among underserved students in particular is a disturbing trend. But perhaps a more disturbing trend for PK-12 educators is the relaxing of high standards at many colleges and universities, who in response to low performance among underserved candidates are making standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT optional. This decision does not revolve around standardized testing controversies. Instead, it's an admission that many PK-12 school systems are failing to help their students realize their potential. It’s a sad statement.

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