Equity becomes flashpoint in California schools

At issue: Grades, tests, math

The San Francisco Unified School District Building in San Francisco on Dec. 2, 2021. Photo by Nina Riggio for CalMatters


That’s one of the buzzwords that will likely dominate conversation in California’s capitol next month, when state lawmakers return to Sacramento to consider, among other things, possible legislation to remove the personal belief exemption from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s student COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Stressed school leaders have mixed feelings about that, with some warning it could push thousands of kids — disproportionately from underserved communities — out of the classroom and into remote learning, widening an educational achievement gap that only grew during the pandemic.

That it could take a while for many students to bounce back from remote learning was evident in a wrenching Washington Post profile of three students at Burton High School in San Francisco. Am’Brianna Daniels, a senior who describes high school as her ticket to college and college as her ticket out of poverty, is struggling to keep up with her workload after the disruption and depression she experienced during nearly two years of online learning. Despite dropping two of her advanced placement classes, she says she’s still “so far behind on work, missing assignments everywhere.”

Some of California’s largest school districts — including Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified and Sacramento City Unified — are launching a new strategy to improve high schoolers’ chances of getting into the UC and CSU systems after the roller coaster of remote learning, EdSource reports. The plan: Drop D and F grades and promote a style of education called mastery-based learning.

It’s a debate similar to the one surrounding California’s controversial new math framework, which proposes — among other things — delaying Algebra 1 until 9th grade to lower the number of Black, Latino and low-income students failing the class in 8th grade. San Francisco Unified has had the policy in place since 2014, and although the district says it’s resulted in fewer students across all demographics failing Algebra 1, CalMatters’ Joe Hong found that standardized test data paints a more complicated picture.

For example, at O’Connell High School — which enrolled the highest percentage of Black students among the district’s comprehensive high schools in the 2018-19 school year — just 6% of Black students met math standards in the 2014-15 school year. That dropped to 0% in 2018-19.

The UC last month said it will no longer require any standardized tests in its admissions process, noting that exams like the SAT and ACT may give a leg up to wealthier students whose families can afford pricey test preparation. But, as Joe reports, some San Francisco Unified families are paying for extra math classes so their kids can take AP Calculus by senior year and potentially have a better chance of getting into the college of their choice.

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