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Math Misplacement May be a Chronic Condition, But Placement Alone Isn’t the Cure

Work to address inequitable math outcomes begins in the classroom, but it can’t end there. Given the prevalence of policies like tracking—which disproportionately place students of color into lower-level, often dead-end, math sequences—math equity includes examining how students are steered toward math classes in the first place. 

Whether in K-12 schools, community colleges, or four-year universities, evidence increasingly has emerged to show that math misplacement is widespread: 

  • Large numbers of students who took Algebra in eighth grade have often been required to repeat the course in high school, even though many were considered proficient on algebra tests, one California study found, noting that students of color were more likely to meet that fate. One possible explanation was that the majority of districts relied on parental requests, which could increase access to advanced math courses for more privileged students. As a result of these concerns, California legislators passed a law on math placement intended to address disparities as students transition from middle school to high school.
  • A similar scenario occurs when students transition from high school to college. Large numbers of community college students traditionally have been under-placed in remedial math courses, due to the limited validity of placement tests. And Black and Latinx students are disproportionately affected by “math misalignment”—a pattern highlighted by our colleagues at the University of Southern California—in which students considered “college ready” based on their high school performance nevertheless are assigned to remedial courses. 

To date, there has been no research to document the effectiveness of the 2015 law on high school math placement. But postsecondary research has shown that placement reforms are most effective when paired with math pathway reforms. Even for students who aren’t fully prepared, evidence has demonstrated clearly that supporting them to succeed in college-level courses is a more effective way to boost math achievement than assigning them to remedial sequences. 

Research on postsecondary placement may hold key lessons for K-12 schools. Numerous studies have demonstrated that far more students ultimately succeed in college-level math courses if they’re allowed to enroll in them and receive just-in-time support. Consider these examples from California: 

First, beginning two years ago, the 23-campus California State University system embarked on an extensive reform, eliminating the use of placement tests and banning remedial courses for entering students. In the past, one out of every 17 Latinx students and one out of every 11 African American students were “disenrolled” after failing remedial courses. Under the new policies, all entering students begin their math sequence at the college-level, though they may be referred to “corequisite” versions that provide just-in-time support. 

In its first year of implementation, college-level math courses were taken by eight times as many students who would have been deemed “not ready” in prior years. And the pass rate in those courses even went up slightly. In eliminating remedial courses and providing co-requisite support, CSU didn’t just change how it placed students, it also changed the math sequences themselves.

The second case involves California’s community colleges, which have pursued a similar strategy, as a result of 2017 legislation. The law bars colleges from placing students in remedial courses unless evidence shows that doing so will boost their success in college-level math. (And given what existing research says, there is rarely justification for placing students in remedial courses.) The law has led to significant increases in student enrollment in and passage of college-level math courses, across racial and ethnic groups, according to a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California. However, the report also noted that equity gaps in math completion remain, particularly for Black students. 

To understand why this happened, it’s important to note that some colleges went farther than others to change their pathways. Colleges that change their placement practices without eliminating bad pathway options leave students vulnerable. Many colleges continue to offer remedial courses. What’s more, according to a recent report by the California Acceleration Project and Public Advocates, colleges with higher proportions of Black students were more likely to retain remedial courses. Even though colleges can no longer assign students to take these courses, their presence in course catalogs may give students the impression they should take them. 

My recent report with Rogéair Purnell uncovered misleading and deficit-oriented messages on college websites that might reinforce that impression and cause students to take unnecessary remedial courses that could deter their progress toward a degree. Such messages, regardless of their intention, can be particularly insidious with respect to equity, in light of research showing that, when confronted with options, women and students of color are more likely to under-estimate their abilities in math. 

No study has documented the impact of California’s 2015 law requiring districts to use objective measures to determine ninth graders’ math placement. It is clear that more districts have changed their placement practices in recent years—eliminating, for example, teacher recommendations that may introduce implicit bias into the process. 

Those appear to be important steps toward equity in high school math education, but research is necessary to understand the impact of such changes on students’ math outcomes. Analyzing district-level data as well as how the placement policies are described to students and families should also be part of any research. 

Furthermore, improving the transition between eighth and ninth grade ideally requires considering inequities in students’ middle school math opportunities, given that only some students have access to accelerated options, which too often predetermines their high school trajectories. As the postsecondary reforms illustrate, high schools need to focus not just on placement, but on the quality and variety of the math pathways students ultimately can pursue. 

Many thanks to Patrick Callahan, Aly Martinez, and Rachel Ruffalo for conversations that informed this blog post. 

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