Identifying Bright Students for Advanced Math in Texas: A Shift in Approach

by Gabriel Martinez
Education Equity

When Tha Cung received his sixth-grade class schedule, he noticed a significant detail within the math section – he had been placed in an advanced math class.

“I didn’t know ‘honors’ even existed,” he admitted.

Tha’s journey to this point had been quite unique. As an immigrant from Myanmar, he spent much of his early education in Dallas schools in classes tailored for English language learners. It was only in the fifth grade that his standardized test scores unveiled his prowess in mathematics, indicating that he was more than capable of taking on honors-level courses in middle school.

Unlike many other schools, the Dallas school system took a different approach. Tha’s parents didn’t need to actively enroll him in advanced math, nor did a teacher or counselor have to recommend him. Tha found himself automatically placed in the advanced course, all thanks to his performance on the Texas STAAR test.

This approach, soon to be implemented statewide, is part of a larger effort to eliminate barriers that often hinder talented students from accessing rigorous courses. Instead of requiring families to opt into advanced math, the new policy allows them to opt out if they wish.

A recently enacted Texas law stipulates that any student performing in the top 40% on a fifth-grade math assessment will be automatically enrolled in advanced math for sixth grade.

This move could serve as a blueprint for other states grappling with the challenge of preparing a diverse, new generation of workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It comes at a critical time as students across the nation are struggling to recover from the widespread learning loss in mathematics exacerbated by the pandemic.

Prior to this policy change, research by the E3 Alliance, an Austin-based education collaborative, revealed that Black and Hispanic students in Texas were often left out of advanced classes, even if they achieved high test scores.

Entering advanced math in sixth grade creates a pathway for students to tackle Algebra I by eighth grade. This, in turn, opens doors to more advanced courses such as calculus and statistics during high school, providing a solid foundation for pursuing a STEM major in college and ultimately, a high-paying career.

Proponents of this new policy argue that it’s not just about equity but also a workforce imperative.

“Especially in today’s rapidly changing and technology-driven economy, math matters more than ever — for individual students and for the larger Texas workforce to remain competitive,” emphasizes Jonathan Feinstein, a state director at The Education Trust, a national nonprofit promoting equity.

At Sam Tasby Middle School, where the policy has already been implemented, the results are promising. More students, including a more diverse student body, are enrolling in advanced math classes.

Prior to the opt-out policy, in 2018, only about 17% of Black students in sixth grade and one-third of Hispanic students were placed in honors math, compared to half of white students. These numbers have improved significantly, with 43% of Black students and nearly six in 10 Hispanic students now entering middle school honors math. The percentage of white sixth graders in honors math has also increased, reaching roughly 82%.

The rollout of this policy is significant because it standardizes the process across Texas’ vast array of school districts, reducing subjective decision-making.

Teacher recommendations have traditionally played a substantial role in determining eligibility for advanced classes in some districts. However, these recommendations can be influenced by implicit biases, often excluding students who don’t fit the stereotypical mold of an “honors student.”

In other districts, parents had to actively request advanced classes for their children, inadvertently leaving out students whose parents may not be aware of this option.

Some Central Texas districts have already adopted opt-out policies and witnessed remarkable outcomes, with more Black and Hispanic students completing Algebra I in eighth grade and improved performance among English language learners.

Derek McDaniel, curriculum officer in the Hays school district, emphasizes the importance of clear communication with parents about the benefits of challenging courses. He also stresses the need for communication with teachers, as some students may be new to the advanced track and require additional support in developing effective study skills.

While a few other states have embraced opt-out or automatic enrollment policies, Texas’ approach stands out for its focus on sixth-grade math as the gateway to advanced courses. The Texas Education Agency has granted administrators until the 2024 school year to fully implement the law, recognizing the potential challenges such as the need for more advanced math teachers and additional tutoring.

Shannon Trejo, the chief academic officer for Dallas schools, acknowledges that some students may start middle school with gaps in their math knowledge due to various factors, including disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She emphasizes the importance of addressing these gaps to ensure that students stay on track and don’t become discouraged.

The true benefits of this policy may not be fully realized until years later when current Dallas students enter high-paying STEM careers. Tha Cung, once placed in that sixth-grade honors math class, is now an eighth grader taking Algebra I, believing that this foundation will give him an advantage in achieving his goal of becoming an engineer.

In conclusion, Texas’ shift in identifying and enrolling bright students in advanced math courses represents a critical step towards equity and workforce preparedness in a rapidly changing world. By making access to advanced math more inclusive, the state is paving the way for a more diverse and skilled generation of STEM professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Education Equity

What is the main change in Texas’ approach to advanced math education?

Texas has shifted from requiring families to opt into advanced math classes to automatically enrolling students who perform in the top 40% on a fifth-grade math assessment.

Why is this change significant?

This change removes barriers that previously hindered talented students, particularly from underrepresented groups, from accessing rigorous math courses.

What are the potential benefits of enrolling in advanced math in sixth grade?

Entering advanced math in sixth grade creates a pathway for students to take Algebra I by eighth grade, setting the foundation for more advanced math courses and potential STEM careers.

How has this change affected the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students in advanced math?

The policy has led to a significant increase in the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students in advanced math courses, promoting diversity in these classes.

What role do teacher recommendations play in this new approach?

Teacher recommendations, which were subjective and influenced by biases in some districts, are no longer the primary factor determining enrollment in advanced math.

What are the challenges associated with implementing this policy?

Challenges include the need for more advanced math teachers, additional tutoring, and addressing potential gaps in students’ math knowledge, particularly due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How does Texas’ approach compare to other states’ policies on advanced math enrollment?

Texas stands out for its focus on sixth-grade math as the gateway to advanced courses, whereas some states have adopted opt-out or automatic enrollment policies but with different emphases.

What is the timeline for full implementation of this policy?

Administrators have until the 2024 school year to fully comply with the law, allowing time to address challenges and ensure a smooth transition.

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EducationEnthusiast22 October 5, 2023 - 9:48 am

Texas movin’ in the right direction finally, no more optin’ in, should help lots of kids

STEM_Guru October 5, 2023 - 12:20 pm

STEM’s the future, glad to see more diverse students gettin’ a chance

ParentPuzzled October 5, 2023 - 3:43 pm

What about kids who struggle? Need help too, not just the advanced ones

Reader123 October 5, 2023 - 11:13 pm

good article gives insight into the changes in texs’s education system big shift right der

CuriousGeorge October 6, 2023 - 6:24 am

teacher recs used to be the only way, but now it’s all about the test scores, is that fair tho?


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