SAN ANTONIO — In a state that has passed anti-diversity laws and tried to squelch instruction on systemic racism, a new law could open doors for Latino and Black children long shut out of advanced math courses.
Just a handful of states have taken the step Texas did this year. Under a law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May, school districts and open-enrollment charter schools must automatically enroll in an advanced math course sixth graders who score in the top 40% of the math portion of the state standardized test known as STAAR.
Texas school districts can also consider class ranking or a student’s proficiency in fifth grade math coursework to place them in advanced math.
In the Dallas school system, the policy has improved the share of Latino sixth graders enrolled in honors math from one-third to almost 60%, The Dallas Morning News reported for the Education Reporting Collaborative.
For Black sixth graders, the share increased from about 17% to 43%, and for white students, gains were even higher, increasing from half to about 82%.
Experts said biases about the capability of Latino and Black students in advanced courses often have been a blockade to their entry in such courses, since the practice is to rely on teacher and counselor recommendations or the students’ or their families’ initiative.
That for years has meant more white students in advanced math courses than Latino and Black students and fewer such courses in schools with high Latino and Black populations.
The new practice in Texas is often called an “opt-out” law or policy, because rather than having to get into the advanced class, the qualifying student is automatically enrolled but can opt out if they don't feel ready.
In Texas, the state’s education agency is still writing implementation rules for the new law.
'Kids out there that we're missing'
Hays Consolidated Independent School District, in an area south of Austin and northeast of San Antonio, has been using an “opt-in” policy since 2018 that goes beyond the state law.
In addition to the state’s standardized tests, which some criticize for their own bias, the district looks at fifth grade students' performance on the MAP Growth test and other data to see if they show aptitude for enrollment in advanced math when they enter sixth grade. Teacher recommendations and requests from students and parents also are used.
The district has seen the share of rising sixth graders in advanced math increase from 26% in 2018 to 42% three years later, said Derek McDaniel, Hays CISD director of curriculum and instruction. A breakdown of the increase by race was not available from the district.
"That was a concern that white teachers are keeping Black and brown students out of these math classes," McDaniel said.
"I started my career as a middle school math teacher, and I was in the highest-poverty school district in the region. ... I often found low-income students that were in these regular classes and I thought, 'You know what? You absolutely could make it in my algebra class with a little bit of support.' That's when we started noticing there's kids out there that we're missing," McDaniel said.
Jeremy Thomas, advanced math teacher at Chapa Middle School, which is in Kyle, Texas, and part of Hays CISD, said he’s had a “big bloom” in Latino and Black students in his advanced math classes at the predominantly Latino middle school.
To help recruit more students to advanced math classes and get the word out, he helps run a “summer bridge camp” where kids do science, technology, engineering STEM projects such as having soon-to-be fifth graders learn fractions through a recipe with cookie dough.
Without the opt-in enrollment, “we would be missing hundreds of students that could be in advanced math and thriving,” Thomas said.
Latino students were about one-quarter of eighth graders nationally and just 18% of eighth graders in Algebra 1, while Black students were 15% of eighth graders and 10% of those enrolled in Algebra 1, according to a January 2020 report from The Education Trust.
But in North Carolina, one of the first to have an “opt-out” law for advanced coursework, and in some of the fewer than six other states with such laws, “we’ve seen enrollment increases particularly for Black and Latino students,” said Eric Duncan, director of P-12 policy at The Education Trust, which focuses on eliminating racial barriers in education. The group has been tracking gaps in enrollment in advanced courses for several years.
E3 Alliance, an education transformation group based in Austin, Texas, took a close look at Texas’ standardized test results. Using test results for 2014-15 fifth graders, they studied the students whose math scores were in the top quintile (90%-100%) to see if they had taken Algebra 1, according to Jennifer Saenz, senior director of strategic initiatives and policy.
They found that among all students scoring in the top quintile, 90% of Asian students and 70% white students were in Algebra 1, compared to only 50% of Latino students and 35% of Black students.
"All these students scored in the exact same range," Saenz said. "There was a big disparity of those that were actually placed on the advanced-bound pathway."
In Central Texas, the opt-out policy has helped close the Black-white gap in advanced math enrollment, Saenz said.
Often, families that are more affluent or white and Asian families will request access to these advanced courses, Duncan said, because they understand the pathway and the success rates when children take more advanced courses such as Algebra 1 starting in middle school.
But there are many parents who are just not as aware of how this can help a student, he said.
Even among students who do know, “a lot of students of color we see don’t have belief or have had cultivated that identity that they could be successful in math, science, engineering or math courses, there’s a variety of issues,” Duncan said, “but we think opt-out policy is a way to ensure equity.”
Algebra as a 'gateway'
A 2018 federal report titled “A Leak in the STEM Pipeline: Taking Algebra Early” examined 2015-16 data and found only about a quarter of all eighth graders were enrolled in Algebra 1.
Algebra is seen as the gateway to higher math courses and to STEM fields. Nationally, of that quarter of eighth graders enrolled in Algebra 1, more than a third were of Asian descent and almost a quarter were white. Just 13% were Hispanic and 12% were Black, according to the Education Department data analysis.
It may surprise some how long barriers have persisted, particularly in a state like Texas, where 52% of the public school student population is Latino and where Latinos now outnumber whites.
In the 1980s, the issue of underestimating Latino students' capability, particularly in math, was given national exposure through the Hollywood film “Stand and Deliver,” based on the true story of Los Angeles mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, who taught Latino California students advanced math courses, beginning in the mid-1970s, and shocked the world when his students passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam.
McDaniel said the opt-out enrollment approach at Hays CISD has been accompanied by support for students and training for teachers so there is help for an advanced math student who may struggle.
“Our teachers are doing a great job supporting them. We are not going to give up on these kids,” McDaniel said.
He said the teachers got training through the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity to help inform them about equity issues, not just on race but also about young girls who may not be encouraged to pursue advanced courses in math and science. They're also ensuring immigrant students are not left out.
"Just because English is not your first language doesn't mean you can't learn algebra in the eighth grade," McDaniel said.
The district increased funding for the opt-out enrollment program, McDaniel said. Federal money provided to the school district during Covid also helped, though that is running out.
Texas is about to begin a legislative session on education, but Gov. Greg Abbott has made the priority school choice and vouchers, which would allow using public money for private schools.
McDaniel worries that "whatever money we get in the short term, because of vouchers, is going to be less."
Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats, are planning to reintroduce legislation to set up a competitive grant program for schools and districts to help them increase enrollment and performance of underrepresented students in advanced courses.