This page shares information on the math placement process and options at the secondary schools (starting 6th grade) at Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) . We clarify important issues that are not conveyed well in the official district math placement document so that parents can calibrate their expectations from the school programs and better support their students. Another goal is to advocate improvements to the program so that all students are supported better at school. The information here is based on the experience of dozens of parents, mostly from Greene and JLS middle schools, on discussions with administration and district staff, and on analysis (included) of 2018 CAASPP data and other data comparing PAUSD with neighboring districts.
Why the focus on math? Math is unique among academic subjects. Math is fundamental to all STEM and allowing students to realize their potential is important not only to their success and satisfaction as individuals but also benefits the economy and society.
Math instruction poses some unique challenges: Similar to foreign languages, continued growth during childhood and adolescence when the brain is developing is essential (here is one example study). In math, concepts build on each other so it is important for both student confidence and development to stay on track or ahead. Appropriate level of challenge is needed to facilitate both growth and appreciation of math. Finally, as in any developmental axis, students of the same physiological age can have a wide range of aptitudes (natural learning pace) and levels. But unlike other topics, it is not possible to support a wide range in a rigid traditional classroom where all students are required to follow the same lessons.
The chart (from official document) shows the PAUSD organic secondary school math pathways.
- Red arrows require summer work.
- "Skip" pathways are not shown in the chart. They lead to middle school Geometry H (and BC calculus before Grade 12). "Skipping" is done by (i) external after school math learning that is not supported by the district to cover the skipped curriculum (ii) gaining eligibility to test by maintaining full engagement at the lower-level school course, (iii) passing at least one of two one-shot only 2-hour tests: "7A mastery" or "Algebra 8 mastery." Incoming 6th graders must remain in math 6 unless they skip directly into Algebra 8. The district allows skipping of "7A", "Algebra 8", and/or "Alg2/Trig H". It should be noted that PAUSD allows acceleration to only 40-50 students per grade level district wide (out of 800-1000) -- about 5%.
- The chart also does not show (i) AP statistics (can be taken after Algebra2) and (ii) Post BC calculus courses (Multivariable calculus and Linear Algebra) offered locally (alternating at Gunn and Paly) jointly with Foothills community college. These courses are open to students that completed BC calculus on or before 11th grade.
- The colors are indicative of the natural pacing of the courses. The yellow/pink are slowest, then light blue, blue (Advanced "A" lane), light green, and green (Honors "H" lane).
Information resources for middle school parents
- It might be helpful for families to know that our MS math program is narrower than MS programs at neighboring districts and is rigid, so it is less suitable to meet students where they are and advance them at a pace that is suitable for them. Data analysis shows that the PAUSD program is also less effective across cohorts (see data analysis on this site). The impact can be mitigated to an extent if families know what to expect. In a nutshell: (i) Students that are below or just at grade level standards (10%-20% of PAUSD students) are offered at neighboring districts small group specialist support at dedicated sections during the school day (oftern as electives). (ii) Students that are "well above" standards (~35% at PAUSD) and are proficient at 6th grade standards year start, are not provided with opportunity for adequate growth at school. At other districts students advance organically within the school program. PAUSD has less than 5% of students doing Algebra in 7th grade whereas this is over 40% at districts with similar demographics (Los Altos, Menlo Park, Saratoga, Cupertino) (iii) Students "just exceeding state standards" (~35% at PAUSD) that aim for 8th grade Algebra experience a slow 6th grade that is compensated by a packed fast-paced 8th grade. Other districts offer smoother and more balanced pathways to 8th grade Algebra with math specialist teachers starting 6th grade (4 years in 3 instead of 3 years in 2). These students got o HS more proficient (in a statistically significant way). Finally, PAUSD math courses have a large fraction (30%+) of misplaced students (students that are proficient year start). The adverse impact of the large-scale mispalcement percolated to all students as it impacts the calibration by teachers and the self perception and attitude of adequately placed students.
- Many middle school students at PAUSD, in particular 6th and 7th graders, enroll in external math programs. We provide pointers and some introduction to established quality math courses. These programs are helpful for a range of students : Those that need re-enforcement of grade-level concepts, those that sail smoothly when the pacing is slow but could struggle later, and those that are entirely above grade level and use them as their primary math learning venue. Even 15 minutes a day can go a long way to boost confidence and success.
- Slides that overview the PAUSD program These slides from May 2018 include points of concern and were shared with board members and district. Slides include comparison to programs (placement and options) at similar school districts. These issues were also presented (slides) to the superintendent Don Austin in a meeting with parents on October 2018. We hope for some improvements.
- Information and advice for families of incoming 6th graders that are above-grade-level (from 2017/2018 6th grade parents at Greene/Jordan): What to expect from the program at school and advice on supporting your students: The PAUSD placement process, placement options, quality external (after school) programs that offer quality coverage of the curriculum, and how to get objective assessments on your student level. Document on the 6th grade experience of students at Greene/Jordan as the 2017/2018 year unrolled.
- Middle school math curriculum information (adopted 2017): Big Ideas textbooks and accompanying online material. Free online versions of 6th grade textbook and 7A textbook. The exact Algebra 8 text book does not seem to have an online free version but there is a very close newer online version. Our advice however is that for the purpose of learning math outside of school use other books such as AoPS (loved by mathematicians, more geared to challenge advanced kids but can also be consumed at standards level) or Singapore math (geared to all). Also see quality math courses.
- To learn and share information on teachers see the website Rate My Teachers (Greene/Jordan) JLS Fletcher (Terman) . The district (as many others) does not accommodate requests to change teachers due to teaching and learning styles mismatches or teaching quality. The nature of math, however, is such that even one year with a mismatch can impact the student's long term interest and success in math. We recommend that parents stay tuned and ready to provide after school support if the instruction is not as effective for their student.