New bill addresses diversity in STEM pipeline
Written by: Ann Smith
John* dreams of a career with a Silicon Valley tech start up. As a high school senior, he is busy crafting college application essays and eagerly considering the possibilities that lie ahead. By all rights, a bright future is his for the taking, especially considering the outstanding grades he has worked hard to earn over the last three years. Little did John know how his choices would be limited though, by a placement decision made long before his personal dreams truly took shape.
While it might seem like a small setback, this single decision altered the trajectory of John’s dreams. As he explores college possibilities, he is quickly learning that many institutions prefer candidates who have completed college level math courses such as calculus or statistics, especially if they aspire to enter competitive STEM programs. The path to courses like calculus begins at a minimum with geometry in 9th grade. Holding a student back at that crucial juncture creates roadblocks down the road for college admission and, in cases like John’s, dampens dreams of a STEM career.
Studies show that Latino and African-American students in Bay Area schools are promoted to geometry at much lower rates than their Asian and White counterparts – even when they have demonstrated proficiency in the classroom or on standardized tests. Like many Latino students, John was placed in algebra instead of geometry in his freshman year of high school, despite performing well in 8th grade algebra.
You might ask why John was asked to repeat algebra despite his solid grades. Many believe that the answer lies in the subjective measures through which placement decisions are typically made. School districts do their best to get it right, but assessing student performance is complex and especially complicated within schools of hundreds of students. This is why we are excited about a measure recently approved by the California State Assembly (SB 359 – California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015) requiring school districts to adopt a mathematics placement policy based on multiple objective academic measures of student performance. A collaboration of several Bay Area school districts, the North County Mathematic Consortium, already demonstrated the positive impact of such an approach. Districts in this consortium reported an increase in the number of students recommended and placed in geometry by 9th grade, including dramatic increases in the percentages of Latinos that advanced. As a partner within the East Side Alliance, we applaud the strides that the East Side Union High School District and their feeder districts have made in implementing a more transparent math placement protocol. We know educators want their students to succeed – in school and in life. Adopting a statewide set of objective standards will support schools in their efforts to make the best decisions possible on behalf of their students.
“Math misplacement is a longstanding problem that has disproportionately impacted students of color,” said Dr. Emmett Carson, CEO and President of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, sponsor of SB 359. “By signing SB 359 into law, Governor Brown can . . . ensure that all students have a fair chance to succeed in math. SB 359 presents an opportunity to increase the number of minority students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math by ensuring there is a systematic process in place to protect them from being held back unfairly.”
We look forward to the passage of SB 359, so that high-achieving students of color have a fighting chance of achieving their STEM dreams and that the pipeline of STEM professionals is increasingly fed by the vibrant rainbow of diversity that exists right here in our community.
*Name changed to protect privacy.