Almost three years ago, the Palo Alto school board voted to pilot a combined algebra class at Gunn High School that would merge Algebra 1 and Algebra 1A.
The goal was to expose all students to rigorous curriculum that would better prepare them to take higher-level math courses, rather than setting them on separate academic tracks that often separated along racial and socio-economic lines. The district hoped this would particularly benefit low-income, minority and special education students who trailed their peers in math achievement.
"If we see ... marked differences in the racial characteristics of students in those classes, a kind of pedagogical common sense turns into a real moral, ethical and even legal imperative not to do that," board member Ken Dauber said in 2016. "That is just not an acceptable state."
A district report included in this week's school board agenda indicates the pilot has not yet had much of the desired impact. Overall, the grade distribution from the first pilot year in 2015-16 to the 2017-18 school year has remained relatively steady and on average, low-income, minority and special-education students continue to get lower grades in algebra than their peers, according to the report.
Grades have gone up, however, for the few low-income and minority students, designated as "historically underrepresented" or HUR, enrolled in the course. While only 8 percent of these students (just four students) received an A in Algebra 1 and 1A in 2015-16, 14 percent received an A the next year and 21 percent last year. Every year, the grade received by the highest percentage of historically underrepresented students was a C.
Special-education students' grades also improved from the first to second year of the pilot course. In 2017-18, seven special-education students received A's, seven received B's, eight received C's in 2017-18 and six received F's, according to the report.
When the pilot course was approved in 2016, Gunn math staff hoped that students who took the mixed class could then enroll in Geometry A over the summer and be on track to take calculus by 11th grade. The Algebra 1A pilot was also launched in the context of a schoolwide goal to increase Latino and African American students' enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors classes by 30 percent.
According to the district, the pathway students have taken after Algebra 1A has varied. Most of the 41 students who received A's in the class, 73 percent, chose to stay in the "accelerated" pathway and enrolled in Geometry A. A smaller percentage, 12 percent, opted for a more accelerated calculus pathway by taking Algebra 2/Trigonometry A. The same percentage of students "down laned" by enrolling in college-preparatory geometry, according to the report.
In the first cohort of the pilot course, only one student "up laned" into Algebra 2/Trigonometry Honors by taking geometry in summer school.
Critics of the pilot feared that it would dilute instruction to the detriment of higher-achieving students. (There was similar resistance to a teacher proposal to merge two levels of freshman English at Palo Alto High School in 2014.) According to the report, this did occur the first semester of the Algebra 1A class at Gunn. Both teachers and students "expressed the challenge of differentiation within the wide range of students in their algebra classes, and teachers and students both expressed concern that the highest-achieving students were not being challenged."
Several students reported in focus groups that because the class was "easy," they were thinking about taking Geometry A over the summer and "up-laning" into Algebra 2/Trigonometry A the next year.
Teachers adjusted after meeting with a middle school math instructional leader to learn and implement differentiation practices, visiting other local algebra classes and receiving additional training.
Rolling out the class was also a "major undertaking" that first year with a team of three new teachers, including one who was new to teaching algebra altogether, according to the report.
By year two of the pilot, the teachers said they felt they had "mitigated" challenges around differentiation and student support through professional learning, team planning and support from Gunn and the district. They were revising the final exam to better match with the new course and experimenting with standards-based grading, which measures student achievement by specific learning targets rather than grades.
Gunn is continuing to track the first and second cohorts of Algebra 1A students.
The district did not immediately provide current enrollment numbers for the class.
The data report is dated March 2018 but hasn't before been publicly presented, according to Superintendent Don Austin. It appears on the board's Tuesday agenda as an informational report, meaning no discussion is required.
In other business Tuesday, the board will vote on whether to identify funds to support a county-led workforce housing project at 231 Grant Ave. in Palo Alto. The project would serve regional teachers and staff from school districts who contributed financially. Staff are also recommending that the district survey employees on staff housing in general.
The board will also discuss several policy revisions and new course proposals for the next school year. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.