Falling Behind the Curve

Few Paly students can say they have been in all three math lanes. But senior Anneke Salvadori can. 

“Freshman year, I took geometry honors, and then I dropped into the ‘A’ lane,” Salvadori said. “Then I took Algebra 2/Trig A, and I took IAC last year. I could have been set up to go into the AB Calculus lane, but I didn’t really see the point.”

Math laning, separating students into well-defined levels of consecutive math classes, is the basis of PAUSD’s math instruction model. Starting from middle school, students are split into either a regular lane and an accelerated “A” lane, a process that feeds into the regular, advanced “A,” and even-higher honor “H” lanes in high school.

Math Instructional Leader Natalie Docktor said the laning system is designed to ensure students perform well in their math classes.

“Kids aren’t successful if they don’t have the proper prerequisite,” Docktor said. “They get Cs and Ds, and they don’t feel good, so we (implemented laning) to help our students feel better. This is really just a system of prerequisites.”

PAUSD de-lanes math

Despite the district’s intention of serving its students best through math lanes, PAUSD parents raised various concerns over the previous laning system.

As a result, PAUSD adopted a new plan for middle school math in 2019 in order to improve overall achievement in the district. Drafted by Assistant Superintendent Sharon Ofek, a former PAUSD middle school math teacher, the program was meant to help meet the PAUSD Promise goals of “Equity & Excellence” along with “High-Quality Teaching & Learning.”

A key component of the proposal is de-laning middle school math classes. PAUSD has de-laned sixth and seventh grade math and plans to finish the de-laning process by the 2022-2023 school year, accelerating all students to Algebra by 8th grade.

In a district report, Ofek said heterogeneous classes with varying levels of math knowledge result in a deeper understanding of mathematics for high-achieving students while simultaneously raising the achievement of struggling students. The report also acknowledged that 80% of PAUSD students are at or above grade-level standards in math.

According to Greene Middle School math Instructional Leader Kourtney Kientzy, while students in each grade formerly were separated into a regular lane and an advanced “A” lane, all current sixth and seventh graders are now in a single lane.

“We have tried to re-calibrate the curriculum to teach all the standards that were traditionally in what was considered the more advanced math lane,” Kientzy said. “Algebra was the higher lane option in eighth grade in the old lanes, so every kid is actually accelerated to that lane. It provides more options for kids in high school.”

While all students get the same direct instruction, those who want to exceed the basic level of math have optional enrichment opportunities.

“Where the differentiation comes in is sometimes in individual practice,” Kientzy said. “For more advanced kids, they might want to do version C. That’s their option. If you need a little more support, you might want to do version A.”

While the plan has benefits, Kientzy is also concerned about merging all students into an accelerated lane.

“People can work better with each other and also if you’re differentiating, there’s plenty of opportunities for all kids where they’re at,” Kientzy said. “With that said, I don’t know if every kid is ready for algebra in eighth grade.”

Erik Olah, the administrator overseeing the math department at Palo Alto High School, said that because the high school laning system is dependent on the current middle school system, there are still many questions to be answered for high school math.

“Do we drop it down to two lanes, and would those two lanes continued all four years?” Olah asked. “Or, do we go back up to three lanes after that? Is it more appropriate to have more lanes going forward again?”

Regardless of what happens, Olah said the math department is anticipating the changes that will arise once the middle schools change their laning system.

“I think it’s going to be about two years out when we’ll really see the kids coming in from middle school with a different math experience,” Olah said. “We’re going to have to make some adjustments.”

Parents file lawsuit against district for equity

In June 2021, four families filed a lawsuit against PAUSD accusing the district of systematically preventing students from advancing in math. 

The lawsuit accuses the district of violating the Math Placement Act, California Education Statute 51228.2, which prohibits students from repeating math classes, and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act.

Avery Wang, one of the advisers for the lawsuit, said he and the other plaintiffs think PAUSD’s effort to create equity, in reality, causes more harm than good.

“Imagine being in a class like Math 7 where some kid has already finished Algebra but is there because (they’re) being held back,” Wang said. “It is not motivating when you know that no matter how hard you try, you’re not going to catch up to that kid.”

PAUSD students do perform well in mathematics compared to the state average. According to the California School Dashboard, a tool used to evaluate the performance of schools against California’s school accountability system, PAUSD students performed 83.2 points above the state standards for math, compared to California students as a whole scoring 33.5 points below standards. 

But Wang said the district is still not doing enough for its high-achieving students.

“The reality is that PAUSD’s top 45% of students are about one year behind their peers in math in neighboring districts,” Wang said. “All we are asking for is for PAUSD to have the same flexible attitude towards math placement as our peer districts.”

Compared to nearby school districts, PAUSD’s math performance does lag behind. Students in the Fremont-Union District score 94.6 points above standards and Saratoga Unified District students score 131.6 points above standards.

Wang also criticized the district for discouraging students from gaining external help from paid tutors.

“If you want to play soccer at the varsity level, you pretty much have to be in a league, and it’s okay,” Wang said. “You can get private coaching for athletics and nobody has a problem with that. Then if you wanted to do it for math, a lot of people have a problem with that.”

The lawsuit also raises issues of gender equity in the district’s math program, alleging that the math laning system disproportionately places more boys than girls in higher math lanes. For instance, in the AP Calculus BC course, which is the highest level of math offered at Paly, 64% of current students are male, and 60% of students who dropped the course were female, despite initially making up just 42% of the class.

Senior Kirtana Romfh, who is taking AP Calculus BC this year, said she thinks girls receive a disproportionate lack of support compared to their male counterparts in higher math lanes.

“When the question of dropping lanes inevitably comes, many of the teachers persuade the boys to stay and persevere,” Romfh said. “But many of my friends who are girls have been told by their teachers to just drop to the lower lane immediately.”

The demographics of the Paly math lanes also demonstrate racial inequities, as 93% of students in AP Calculus BC are either white or Asian. In comparison, in Algebra 1, the lowest course lane offered at Paly, 70% of students are ethnic minorities.

Another allegation in the lawsuit is the district unnecessarily prevents students from moving to a higher lane in high school math, which Wang said becomes even clearer when compared to nearby districts.

“I was talking to the superintendent at Cupertino and asking about their math program, and it’s totally fluid. But in Palo Alto, it’s completely different,” Wang said. “The tests are very, very difficult, so it’s hard to transition up, and the math leaders really discourage it. They’ll basically try any trick to keep you down, so it’s easy to transition down but not up.”

Wang also said the middle school validation tests, or skip tests, that determine whether or not a student can move to a higher math lane are intentionally difficult and inconsistently scored.

“It is intended to fail most kids,” Wang said. “Even kids who have scored nearly perfect on the Math section of the SAT at the beginning of 6th grade have failed the test and been forced to sit in 6th-grade math. But most of the kids who passed the test were somehow cherry-picked by the administration. The placement process has no credibility and PAUSD should be ashamed.”

In a response to the lawsuit, the district denied the existence of any bias in the middle school validation tests.

New California math framework in contention

In February 2021, the California State Board of Education released a draft version of a new mathematics framework. The framework sought to respond to issues of inequity in mathematics learning, arguing  against gifted and non-gifted math classifications and that math should be used to advance social justice concepts.

The proposal, hoping to provide a more applicable math education, would provide alternatives to calculus such as data science. It aims for all California students to graduate from high school with data literacy and have access to an introduction to data science class in their K-12 experience. In response to the movement, PAUSD plans to introduce a data science course in December.

“PAUSD will continue to offer Calculus as well as continue its partnership with Foothill Community College for courses beyond BC Calculus,” Ofek said. “Students currently have access to elective math courses, and, in December, a new elective math course in Data Science will be proposed to the Board of Education.”

The new framework also argues that students who take advanced courses also suffer from a faster-paced and often shallower mathematics experience, advising against high-level accelerated classes.

Romfh agrees and said PAUSD should focus more on adapting its math curriculum to ensure all students master the content.

“Time and time again, we’ve shown that Paly math, while very rigorous, is also often past the standards,” Romfh said. “I do think that there are certain parts of the curriculum throughout all of Paly math, which are probably very rushed and not very comprehensive.”

Students weigh in

To students such as Salvadori, the competitive environment of Paly stands out in accentuating the disagreements over the math lanes.

“For a lot of people at Paly, even if you plan on going into the humanities, you still feel a lot of pressure to do well in the STEM fields,” Salvadori said. “I think the school should work on making the honors lanes and everything below a less toxic environment.”

Since she does not want to pursue a career in STEM, Salvadori decided to lane down.

“I didn’t think it was important for me to be stressed over taking an AP class in a subject that I didn’t like and that was not going to be useful for my future,” Salvadori said.

Caity Berry, a Paly graduate and current junior at Bowdoin College majoring in math, agreed that students should only take higher levels of math if they are truly passionate about it.

“A lot of people would work really hard to be in the highest lane of math even if they didn’t necessarily enjoy math or even want to do math in the future,” Berry said. “But people’s value definitely should not be based on what lane of math they’re in.”

Berry also said, based on her college experience, Paly is ahead of other schools in math, to the point where the difference in lanes doesn’t really matter.

“When you go to college, everyone’s starting at a different place, and Paly is already so much more ahead of the rest of the country in terms of preparing people for college,” Berry said. “Even if I had taken AB Calc versus BC Calc, I felt like I would be in the same place as I am now.”


This story was updated in 12/19/2021 with the following correction: Avery Wang has been listed as an adviser for the math lawsuit, not a plaintiff