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The verdict is in: PAUSD’s math placement policies don’t add up

Photo Illustration by Cayden Gu

Judge rules district violated Education Codes, issues writ of mandate

ASanta Clara Superior Court judge has sided with the plaintiffs in a case against the Palo Alto Unified School District and its method of placing students in high school math classes. A court order, signed by Judge Carrie Zepeda on Feb. 6, requires the school district to revise its ninth grade math placement policies to comply with California Education Code and the Math Placement Act.

Judge Zepeda found that PAUSD violated two education codes mandated by the state, including the 2015 Math Placement Act which “requires school districts to develop, establish, and implement fair, objective and transparent mathematics placement policies for ninth grade students that consider multiple objective measures as the basis for placement.”

The judge also ruled the school district violated EDC 51228.2, which states that school districts cannot force students to repeat classes if they have already completed the UC-approved equivalent.

According to the writ of mandate issued by Judge Zepeda, “PAUSD must adopt a math placement policy that uses multiple objective academic measures.”

Palo Alto parent Avery Wang, an adviser to the lawsuit, said parents filed the lawsuit to ensure a quality education for their kids.

“We’re just very upset that this was happening,” Wang said. “(The current math placement policy) lowers the amount of education that kids are getting. Coming out of Palo Alto, PAUSD used to have a really great reputation.”

Wang said PAUSD schools and the opportunities they provide are the main reason many families move to Palo Alto despite the high cost of living, and he wants to ensure all students are receiving the best education possible.

“I’ve even heard, in fact, the only reason some people want to live in Palo Alto is the excellent schools,” Wang said. “But as a result of what’s been happening and kids being held back, they’re not getting the education they deserve.”

Paly parent Edith Cohen, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said putting advanced students in courses where they already know the material is detrimental for students. She also said she is disappointed that it took a lawsuit for the district to comply with state law.

In his weekly email update sent to district families on Feb. 24, Superintendent Don Austin attributed much of what led to the lawsuit to poor website design.

“After reviewing the District website and informational materials regarding math placement and pathways, I can see why there was a degree of confusion,” Austin wrote in the update. “Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the explanations of our placement process were cumbersome and wordy. The governing policies were difficult to find, and the explanations were often confusing. As a result, the website was completely redesigned and organized to be user-friendly and cleaner.”

Austin did not respond to interview requests, and Principal Brent Kline said PAUSD would not comment on Judge Zepeda’s ruling. Greene Middle School math teacher Kourtney Kientzy and Paly Math Department Instructional Lead Natalie Docktor said they did not know how the district would respond to the writ of mandate.

The judge’s ruling gave the district until March 8 to present to the court an acceptable math placement policy, but as of March 10, PAUSD had not submitted a new policy, according to an email from Cohen. A hearing for PAUSD’s lack of compliance with the writ of mandate was scheduled for March 13.

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