December 7, 2023
High School Math Policies

Wanted: Evidence-Based Solutions to Inequitable Math Access

Pamela Burdman
Wanted: Evidence-Based Solutions to Inequitable Math Access

North Carolina schools enroll students in higher-level math courses based on their previous grades or test scores. Under a 2018 law, high-performing students are automatically placed into advanced courses the following year. 

Even before that, the state of Washington piloted an automatic-enrollment program that saw large-percentage increases of students of color taking advanced courses in math and other subjects. In 2019, lawmakers there took the program statewide beginning in the 2021–2022 school year. 

But across the country, these approaches remain the exception, not the norm.

Such policies were driven in part by a concern over racialized patterns in math enrollment, a problem highlighted in a new report out today by Just Equations and The Education Trust. The report, Opportunities Denied: High-Achieving Black and Latino Students Lack Access to Advanced Math, examines math course enrollment of students who participated in the 2009 High School Longitudinal Study. Among the findings: 

  • Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds who take Algebra I in eighth grade—a course pattern often reserved for high-achieving students—are less likely to take advanced math courses than their White, Asian, and more affluent peers. 
  • Those who took advanced math courses (which include precalculus, calculus, and statistics) were more likely to have math teachers who set clear goals and school counselors who set high standards.  

The premise for the research was that advanced math coursetaking in high school matters. It is thought to play an important role in preparing students for college success, especially for students interested in math-intensive majors, such as physics and engineering, an assumption that was verified by the report. Taking advanced math courses was associated with higher high school grades and graduation rates; higher college matriculation, persistence, and grades; and more credits earned in college STEM courses. 

Automatic enrollment policies are one of the strategies the report promotes for ensuring that access to advanced mathematics is not driven by demographics. The authors — Just Equations’ Melodie Baker, Ed Trust’s Ivy Morgan, and UCLA grad student Gizella Wade — also recommend improving counselor-to-student ratios for Black and Latino students. 

Given the potential for systemic bias in advice from counselors and teachers — a risk underscored by Opportunities Denied — the behavioral nudge afforded by such policies can open opportunities that might otherwise not be presented to students from historically excluded groups. 

Early evidence on automatic enrollment is promising. In its first year, North Carolina’s program saw an additional 8,000 students access advanced math. As a result, states including Colorado, Nevada, and Illinois are pursuing similar approaches. 

But further research is needed to ensure that the changes in placement practices ultimately yield equitable outcomes with respect to advanced math coursetaking throughout high school.  

Research scrutiny has helped shed light on other approaches to ending race-based tracking in mathematics. For example, San Francisco’s school district pursued a controversial “detracking” policy under which no eighth graders were enrolled in Algebra I. The idea was to improve equitable access to advanced math by keeping all students on the same pace and giving students opportunities to accelerate during high school instead of middle school. 

Initial data from the district looked promising, but when parent activists questioned the policy, officials ultimately were not able to address their concerns, even as the approach was inspiring interest across California and beyond. 

Earlier this year, researchers at Stanford found that the program had not achieved its goal of improving math outcomes for underrepresented students. Currently, based on the new information, the district is considering how to reintroduce Algebra I for eighth graders. Since simply reverting to prior policies would leave existing inequities unchecked, the district will need to search for new approaches to address the gaps. 

It is clear, as Opportunities Denied demonstrates, that, in most places, the status quo has not worked to ensure equitable access to rigorous courses and prevent race-based tracking in math. It is also clear that it’s beyond time to adopt solutions to this injustice and study their implementation to ensure the solutions achieve their goals. 

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