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When Tha Cung looked over his sixth-grade class schedule, he took notice of the math block. He had been placed in an advanced class. 

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

Tha was little when his family immigrated from Myanmar, and, for much of his time in Dallas schools, he took courses designed for children who are learning English. In fifth grade, his standardized test scores showed he was a strong math student – someone who should be challenged with honors classes in middle school.

Under Dallas Independent School District policy, Tha’s parents didn’t need to sign him up for advanced math. A teacher or counselor didn’t have to recommend him, either. In many schools, those are the hoops a student must get through to join honors classes. But Tha was automatically placed in the advanced course because of his scores on Texas’ STAAR test.

A version of this approach will soon be replicated statewide as part of an effort to remove systemic barriers that can stand between bright students and rigorous courses. It sounds simple: Instead of having families opt-in to advanced math, they are instead given the choice to opt-out. 

During its regular session, the Legislature passed a bipartisan bill mandating every student who performed in the top 40 percent on a fifth-grade math assessment automatically be enrolled in advanced math for sixth grade. 

“We’re setting up a structure that uses an objective measure to ensure that students who are already showing that they are capable are being put on that advanced math pathway,” said Jennifer Saenz, a policy director with the E3 Alliance, an education collaborative based in Austin, which advocated for the new Texas law. 

How the approach rolls out in Texas could provide lessons for other states. 

Leaders across the country are confronting the need to prepare a new, diverse generation of STEM workers. And after COVID-19, it’s been particularly challenging for students to bounce back from widespread learning loss in math. Eighth graders in Texas scored roughly in line with the national average on the test referred to as the Nation’s Report Card in 2022, seeing a similar dip since 2019.

Related: Inside the new middle school math crisis

Before the pandemic, E3 Alliance’s research found that Black and Hispanic students in Texas were routinely left out of advanced classes – even if they earned high test scores. The group hopes the new state law will build pathways for students who have been historically excluded.

The Math Problem 

Sluggish growth in math scores for U.S. students began long before the pandemic, but the problem has snowballed into an education crisis. This back-to-school season, the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, will be documenting the enormous challenge facing our schools and highlighting examples of progress. The three-year-old Reporting Collaborative includes, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

Enrolling in advanced math in sixth grade clears the way for a student to take Algebra I in eighth grade. That opens up the possibility of courses such as calculus or statistics during high school. And that can then set a stronger foundation for a STEM major in college and a high-paying career after graduation. 

Advocates for the opt-out policy say it’s a workforce issue in addition to an equity issue.

“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,” said Jonathan Feinstein, a state director at The Education Trust, a national nonprofit promoting equity.

On a recent morning at Vickery Meadow’s Sam Tasby Middle School, Principal Nesha Maston observed dozens of students in Room 304 calculating the area of parallelograms and trapezoids. 

In that class was Alexis Grant, an 11-year-old who thinks her year in sixth-grade honors math will pave the way for achieving one of her goals: Studying at Harvard. 

“I knew it would be challenging,” Alexis said of her math class.“We push each other to get the work done.”

Many of her Tasby classmates – including Tha – are immigrants. Families who send their children to the school collectively speak more than a dozen languages, and the vast majority are low-income. 

When Maston looks in on those honors classes, she sees the population of her school is reflected.  

Related: How can schools dig out from a generation’s worth of lost math progress?

Maston’s observations are backed up by Dallas ISD data. 

Not only are far more DISD students enrolling in advanced math, but those classrooms are more diverse.

In 2018, prior to the opt-out policy, roughly 3,500 sixth graders enrolled in honors math classes. About 17 percent of Black students in that grade and one-third of Hispanic students were in those classes, compared to half of white students. 

“My mom told me that I could be anything. So I chose engineer.”

Tha Cung, student, Dallas Independent School District

Last year, more than 5,100 sixth graders took honors math. And now, 43 percent of Black students are in honors math when they enter middle school and nearly six in 10 Hispanic students are. The percentage of white sixth graders in honors math has also gone up, to roughly 82 percent. 

Meanwhile, the number of Dallas ISD eighth-grade students enrolled in Algebra I nearly doubled between 2018 and last year. 

Texas is home to more than 1,000 school districts, which means vastly different ways students could end up in advanced courses. The decisions were often subjective.

Related: Teachers conquering their math anxiety

Teacher recommendations are a big factor in some districts. But those decisions can be swayed by implicit biases around what an “honors students” looks or acts like, education advocates say. 

In other places, parents must request advanced classes for their children – but that can leave out students whose parents may not be aware of the option. Students themselves also may not want to opt-in because they don’t see themselves as good at math or don’t want the extra workload. 

The number of Dallas ISD eighth-grade students enrolled in Algebra I nearly doubled between 2018 and last year. 

Some Central Texas districts also already have an opt-out policy, with the help of the E3 Alliance. Those schools have seen far more Black and Hispanic students complete Algebra I in eighth grade, as well as a huge jump among children who are learning English.

In Hays ISD, curriculum officer Derek McDaniel watched as the number of students in advanced math ballooned over the past three years since implementing the new policy. 

As more districts move in this direction under the new law, McDaniel urges school administrators to prioritize parent communication. Explaining to families why their child is placed into honors math is critical, he said, adding that parents should know the benefit of this more challenging course load.

Communication with teachers is also key, McDaniel said. Some honors-level teachers are accustomed to a certain student profile. They expect limited behavior problems and for students to always complete homework assignments on time. 

With an opt-out policy, he said, some students will be new to the advanced track and not have developed uniform study skills in the lower grades. 

“The easy solution is to give up,” McDaniel said. “We’re gonna stick with the kid.” 

Related: Is it time to stop segregating kids by ability in middle school math?

A handful of other states have embraced opt-out or automatic enrollment policies.

In North Carolina, for example, a 2017 News & Observer/Charlotte Observer investigation found students from low-income families were placed in advanced coursework at lower rates than their affluent peers who demonstrated the same levels of achievement.

Lawmakers later passed an “automatic enrollment” law. According to a 2022 state report, 92 percent of North Carolina middle and high school students who scored at the highest level on their end-of-grade math test were placed in an advanced math course.

Texas’ strategy is unique in its focus on sixth-grade math as a gateway for more advanced courses.

Now, 43 percent of Black students are in honors math when they enter middle school and nearly six in 10 Hispanic students are. The percentage of white sixth graders in honors math has also gone up, to roughly 82 percent. 

Recognizing the change could be a heavy lift, the Texas Education Agency has given administrators until the 2024 school year to comply with the law. 

Among the potential challenges: schools may need to strengthen their pipeline of advanced math teachers. Administrators may also have to build out more time for tutoring or host summer camps to bring more students up to speed on key math skills.

Dallas ISD chief academic officer Shannon Trejo said some students might begin middle school fuzzy on various math ideas. Or, because of the COVID disruption, they may have some gaps in their understanding of foundational concepts. 

“We need to be ready to build those little gaps and not make that be the cause for students to say, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore,’” she said.

The payoff may be years away, when current Dallas students begin earning high-paying jobs in science, technology, engineering or math fields.

Tha Cung was placed in that sixth-grade honors math class two years ago. Now he’s an eighth grader enrolled in Algebra I. He thinks that will give him a leg up in the future.

“My mom told me that I could be anything,” Tha, 13, said. “So I chose engineer.”

This story is part of The Math Problem, a series by The Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms that is documenting the math crisis facing schools and highlighting progress. Members of the collaborative are, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas. The Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Sydney Smith Hicks and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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