California judge rules school district must prioritize achievement over equity

California parents have won a lawsuit against a school district over its math placement policies which emphasized equity over achievement.

A coalition of Palo Alto parents and residents, led by Edith Cohen, sued their school district for allegedly slowing down the advancement of some math students in order to create equal outcomes.

“We know from experience, data and comparisons to similar districts that PAUSD (Palo Alto Unified School District) students are disproportionately held back in mathematics,” said Cohen. “That is, they are misplaced in math courses. Misplacement impacts student wellness and also makes it much harder for them to grow and reach their goals. It was also against the law.”

California law requires schools to use “objective academic measures” to ensure students are placed in courses suited to their skill level and “are not held back in a disproportionate manner on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background.”

On Feb. 6, Judge Carrie Zepeda ruled in favor of PAUSD parents, arguing that preventing students from taking more advanced courses violated California law and the district must change its policy within 30 days.

The decision comes as equity initiatives in many school districts have led schools to abandon merit-based instruction and instead attempt to produce equal outcomes for all.

In 2019, PAUSD redesigned its middle school math classes, often forcing students into courses they didn’t need as part of a “detracking” initiative. 

Critics of “tracking” – placing students in advanced classes based on test scores – say it inadvertently creates racial and socioeconomic groupings and “exacerbates achievement gaps.”  

Some claim “mixed-ability” classrooms would benefit both high and low-achieving students. However, Families for San Francisco, a nonprofit organization, saw the opposite effect occur in its city.  

After the San Francisco school district implemented detracking policies in 2014, residents observed a decrease in test scores and enrollment in advanced math classes.  

“Even more worrying, we found the new math sequence created a new set of inequities that likely caused the declining enrollment of Black and brown students in Algebra 2 by the end of 10th grade,” the authors write 

Nearly a decade after the policy change, less than half (46%) of its students meet state math standards, significantly less than its neighboring districts who score between 66-81%. Especially disturbing is the fact that only 9% of San Francisco’s black students are proficient in math.  

Palo Alto parents saw the writing on the wall and decided to fight the counterproductive equity initiative. 

“PAUSD’s math placement causes substantial and immediate harm to its students starting in middle school and continuing through high school and college,” the lawsuit claims. “Students stuck in math classes they have already mastered are bored and quickly lose interest in excelling in math.”