Soapbox

Bill would deal with ‘math misplacement’

Alice Huffman
Alice Huffman

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus met recently with tech company leaders in the Silicon Valley to discuss workforce diversity. The caucus is seeking solutions to increase African American representation and employment in the tech sector by 2020.

With the stroke of his pen, Gov. Jerry Brown can take a major step forward and set the stage to increase diversity in the workforce. By signing Senate Bill 359 by Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, the governor can stop math misplacement – a disturbing practice that holds back many African American and other minority students from advancing in math.

Math misplacement occurs when a student is held back despite having successfully achieved a “B” or better in their previous math course or having met or exceeded California standardized assessments. Groundbreaking studies commissioned by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Noyce Foundation and others have shown that math misplacement disproportionately affects African Americans, Latinos and other students of color.

Math misplacement unnecessarily – and unfairly – derails successful students from their college trajectory, making them less competitive for college entrance and careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

A root cause of this problem is an overreliance on subjective measures or a focus on a single data point when determining placement. When placement decisions are not based on multiple objective measures, the system is subject to error. The result: Students, most of them students of color, are forced to repeat courses they’ve already taken, and the STEM pipeline becomes less diverse.

Let’s look at the numbers to understand how this problem affects the economy.

The number of minority applicants for jobs in tech and other STEM industries is not keeping pace with the overall diversity of the workforce. Latinos and African Americans combined make up 58 percent of California’s children and future workforce. With statewide STEM jobs expected to grow by 22 percent over the next five years, we should be removing obstacles that prevent students from advancing in math.

There is a clear connection between the math misplacement problem and the lack of diversity in STEM. If kids fall behind in math in the ninth grade or sooner, they won’t have enough time to take courses that colleges require a math or science major to have taken.

How will the STEM pipeline become more diverse if successful students of color are being held back despite getting good grades and test scores?

It won’t. But there is a simple solution.

School districts must adopt the fair, objective and transparent math placement policies called for in SB 359. That is why a broad and diverse coalition that includes tech, business, education, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and social equity groups including the California State Conference of the NAACP, Public Advocates and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, are all encouraging the governor to sign SB 359 into law.

He should. There is a significant cost for not taking action. If the U.S. had in recent years closed the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance, the gross domestic product in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, or 2 to 4 percent of the GDP.

These numbers will grow over time as black and Latino students represent a larger share of our student population. Meanwhile, implementing a fair and objective math placement policy costs nothing more than a firm commitment to make it happen, as demonstrated by districts that have tackled the math misplacement issue using existing resources.

With SB 359 the governor can make a small investment in children that can blossom into a stronger future workforce that reflects the diversity of California.

Alice Huffman is the president of the California State Conference of the NAACP. Andrea Deveau is the California executive director of TechNet, a bipartisan network of innovation economy executives.

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