Education policy analyst: San Francisco's math de-tracking experiment failed to close the achievement gap

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Last summer the Washington Post published a report about California’s consideration of a plan to do away with tracking in the state’s math classes. As the report was quick to point out, the argument for de-tracking was one connected to race and to a desire to reduce the achievement gap.


An emotional, racially charged debate over whether to sort students into higher and lower tracks that has unfolded in school districts across the country in recent years is now underway on its biggest stage yet, as the state of California considers a new math framework.

Advocates for the new California math guidelines say “de-tracking,” or mixing together students of varying academic performance, can help all students, particularly those who would have languished in lower-level classes. It can also unravel racial segregation inside schools. Almost everywhere, White and Asian American students are more likely to be placed in higher tracks, with Black and Latino students more likely to be placed in lower tracks.

Later in the story we learn that the state was taking some cues from a de-tracking program in San Francisco, a program which had been deemed a success by its supporters based on a couple of specific metrics:

Laying the groundwork for California’s proposed framework was San Francisco. In 2014, the district overhauled its curriculum to group all students with a mix of abilities through 10th grade. Almost everyone is taught Algebra 1 in ninth grade and geometry in 10th. Students who want to take AP Calculus their senior year may accelerate, for instance by combining Algebra 2 and precalculus in 11th grade.

The district was looking to unravel the pervasive classroom racial segregation that came with tracking and rethinking the best way to teach, said Lizzy Hull Barnes, mathematics and computer science supervisor for the district. The result, she said, is that “more students enrolled in advanced math courses, and it’s a more diverse group of students.”

The district also points to a drop in students repeating Algebra 1, an increase in students meeting math requirements over three years and a pre-pandemic drop in D and F grades. Still, while the percentage of Black and Latino students taking Advanced Placement math has increased, the numbers remain small.


So that’s the basic backstory here. Progressives looking to emphasize equity and decrease the achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers had de-tracked math classes and claimed it was a success. Now the state is looking at this example and considering ending math tracking statewide.

But education policy analyst Tom Loveless, formerly of the Brookings Institution, published his own look at these claims yesterday on his blog. He finds that the talking points used to argue the SF de-tracking program was a success are misleading.

SFUSD declared detracking a great success, claiming that the graduating class of 2018–19, the first graduating class affected by the policy when in eighth grade, saw a drop in Algebra 1 repeat rates from 40% to 8% and that, compared to the previous year, about 10% more students in the class took math courses beyond Algebra 2. Moreover, the district reported enrollment gains by Black and Hispanic students in advanced courses…

Families for San Francisco, a parent advocacy group, acquired data from the district under the California Public Records Act (the state’s version of Freedom of Information Act). The group’s analysis, available here, calls into question the district’s assertions. As mentioned previously, repeat rates for Algebra I dropped sharply after the elimination of Algebra I in eighth grade, but whether the reform had anything to do with that is questionable. The falling repeat rate occurred after the district changed the rules for passing the course, eliminating a requirement that students pass a state-designed end of course exam in Algebra I before gaining placement in Geometry.  In a presentation prepared by the district, speaker notes to the relevant slide admit, “The drop from 40% of students repeating Algebra 1 to 8% of students repeating Algebra 1, we saw as a one-time major drop due to both the change in course sequence and the change in placement policy.”

The claim that more students were taking “advanced math” classes (defined here as beyond Algebra II) also deserves scrutiny.  Enrollment in calculus courses declined post-reform.  The claim rests on a “compression” course the district offers, combining Algebra II and Pre-Calculus into a single-year course. The Families for San Francisco analysis shows that once the enrollment figures for the compression course are excluded, the enrollment gains evaporate.  Why should they be excluded? The University of California rejected the district’s classification of the compression course as “advanced math,” primarily because the course topics fall short of content specifications for Pre-Calculus.


So the evidence in favor of de-tracking looks pretty thin already but Loveless’ analysis didn’t end there. He also compared test scores on a test taken by students in grades 3-8 and once again in grade 11. Since the SF de-tracking reform happened in 2014, it’s now possible to compare students who were in grade 11 before the change to those who reached grade 11 after the change. What Loveless found was that de-tracking has changed the achievement gap but not in the direction reformers were hoping.

As displayed in Table 1, SFUSD’s scores for 11th grade mathematics remained flat from 2015 (scale score of 2611) to 2019 (scale score of 2610), moving only a single point. Table 1 shows the breakdown by racial and ethnic groups. Black students made a small gain (+2), Hispanic scores declined (-14), white students gained (+17), and Asian students registered the largest gains (+22).

The raw numbers don’t really convey what the gap means but 2474 is the mean score for 4th grade math. So, on average, black students in 11th grade were performing just above that at 2479. Hispanic students, on average, were scoring 2498 in 11th grade which was the mean score for 5th graders. Meanwhile, white students and Asian students were both testing at a high school level. It’s a pretty dramatic gap and schools are right to want to address it. But if you re-read that excerpt above you’ll see that the achievement gap actually widened since de-tracking was implemented. Here’s the table Loveless provided showing that change. Remember 2015 is prior to de-tracking and 2019 is after de-tracking. The gap is getting worse.


Loveless argues that the real situation may be significantly worse than it appears based on those figures above. Why? Because about 97% of Asian students and 90% of white students took the mandatory test, but only 79% of Hispanic students and 71% of black students did so. Assuming those who did not take the test were likely to score on the lower end of the scale, the achievement gap is likely wider than it appears.

The bottom line here is that de-tracking, which was sold as a way to address the achievement gap and improve equity, has apparently made the gap worse in San Francisco. Now California is considering adopting this idea statewide, pointing to San Francisco as a success story.

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