For the past decade, San Francisco Unified School District has been setting its students up to be left behind by delaying algebra I to 9th grade for all students.
This means students either find alternative means to prepare for science, technology, engineering, and math careers, or they graduate ill-prepared for a world that leans heavily on STEM.
That said, SFUSD families recently learned that a significant roadblock will be removed. This year the district announced that it will waive something called the Math Validation Test as it works to come in compliance with education codes.
The MVT is essentially a screening test for SFUSD students who complete an online University of California-approved high school algebra I class in 8th grade. Students must pass this test in order to take geometry in 9th grade — or they are made to repeat algebra I.
The district says it’s a proficiency test, but parents say it’s deliberately designed to prevent students from advancing.
The issue here is that once students have legally passed UC-approved classes, part of the education code (EC51228.2) makes it illegal for districts to force students to repeat classes they have already passed. This is one of the focus points of a current lawsuit.
While we are happy the district has moved to waive the test, it does not bring algebra I back to 8th grade — a necessity for students hoping for STEM careers — nor does it clear up the misinformation SFUSD has been spreading about its educational policies.
To put in perspective the scope of the issue surrounding the MVT, the lawsuit points out that even though all the students taking the MVT have passed algebra I classes, nearly 60% of them fail the MVT. This is not because these students are not proficient in algebra I, but because the test includes subject matter not covered in algebra I.
We can’t begin to describe the distressing stories of countless students who were forced to repeat classes that they had already lawfully passed. This has been tremendously frustrating for these families, and it has significantly affected the careers of these students.
We strongly believe that to move forward transparently, the district must still reckon with its past. For years, SFUSD crisscrossed the country giving disingenuous presentations claiming its policy of delaying algebra I to 9th grade for all students was a success.
SFUSD claimed this led to the number of students having to repeat this class falling from 40% to 8%, and that more students took advanced classes than before. These claims were repeated in multiple publications — including a book published this year — and in news reports.
But these claims were grossly misrepresented. The school’s own data, obtained through public-records requests, reveals that 100 out of 2,359 students (4.2%) failed algebra I in 2013-14.
This was the 8th-grade class of 2018, the last cohort before algebra I was delayed. The class of 2019 took algebra I in 9th grade — which was 2015-16 — and 195 out of 2,957 students (6.6%) failed. There is no improvement.
The district has since admitted that there was an exit exam the class of 2018 had to pass that the class of 2019 did not. Therefore, the improved pass rate comes not from the change itself but simply from removing an exit exam (and even then, they bungled the numbers).
SFUSD also said more students took advanced classes with its policy change. But this has to do with its attempts to combine the content of the year-long algebra II and precalculus courses into one year.
The only reason this even became necessary was because SFUSD delayed algebra I to 9th grade and had to create a pathway for students to reach calculus by 12th grade. SFUSD has labeled this class advanced math. However, UC reviews all state high school classes. It determined the class didn’t meet state precalculus standards and categorized it as algebra II.
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Why does any of this matter?
First, it is important to understand that both the STEM community and the U.S. Department of Education have clearly explained the importance of students taking algebra I in 8th grade.
Despite this, many districts across the country have been fooled by SFUSD presentations and have either removed or are planning to remove algebra I from middle school (Portland, Oregon, is one example), all based on faulty data from SFUSD. This hurts the most vulnerable students nationwide.
This has also had worrisome effects closer to home. Oakland Unified School District wrote to its families last February informing them that it was removing the algebra I course from 8th grade — delaying the course until 9th grade for all students — thus compromising their students’ STEM readiness. The district sugarcoated this poison pill by misinforming parents that it is “providing even more opportunities for rigorous math instruction”.
What was the justification for this? You guessed it — SFUSD. As stated in the letter, the “rationale for these changes” was “in SFUSD, algebra I success rates have increased significantly since detracking 8th grade math,” propagating this false claim.
It is unknown how many more districts have succumbed to the narrative of these educators, changing policies and hindering students for years to come, based on these misrepresented statements.
The most disconcerting misuse of the SFUSD false claims is the role they played in the proposed California Math Framework. This framework provides guidance for the math education of our nearly 6 million public-school children. The first draft of the framework explicitly referenced SFUSD as justification for its guidance of delaying “any students taking advanced classes in mathematics until after 10th grade” and moving the “algebra course from eighth to ninth grade.”
However, when the SFUSD claims of the benefits of these policies were shown to be misrepresented, the second draft of the framework removed all explicit mention of SFUSD.
Nonetheless, the second draft contains guidance echoing SFUSD policies. In it, we see statements such as “this framework recommends that all students take the same, rich mathematics courses in kindergarten through grade eight” and “a common ninth- and 10th-grade experience.”
This indicates that even though SFUSD is not explicitly referenced, its policies seem to remain the guiding force behind the framework. The third draft is expected this summer.
SFUSD must take responsibility for these misrepresentations and set the record straight. This misinformation has metastasized to a point that unless it does so, other districts will continue to believe in falsehoods that will set even more children behind. Admitting it was wrong is the only way to move forward with accountability and transparency.
Families in SFUSD are survivors. They have either harbored their frustrations or found ways of working around the obstacles SFUSD has put in the way of their children’s success. Waiving the MVT is the first glimmer of hope for a more equitable environment that SFUSD families have seen for a long time.
Let’s hope that removing the MVT is permanent and not just a temporary move to wriggle out of the lawsuit. We also hope SFUSD will assess its entire K-12 math strategy. This includes returning algebra I to middle school and using a vetted curriculum, as opposed to the self-made, error-ridden curriculum SFUSD currently uses.
Once this occurs, there will be hope of safe sailing for families moving forward after a decade of damage.