Opinion: The math crisis at Berkeley High — Supporting the class of 2019 and beyond

Students who once did well in math are now getting Ds and Fs. BUSD should make a public statement for CSU and UC applicants to allow students to put their math performance in a validated school-wide context.

In the fall of 2015, the Berkeley High math department introduced a new Common-Core-aligned curriculum called the Mathematics Vision Project. Students in the class of 2019 were the first to take Math 1 as freshmen, Math 2 as sophomores, and Math 3 as juniors. As one parent representing several families of current seniors observed at the PTSA meeting on April 18, the class of 2019 served as “guinea pigs” for the launch of three brand-new math courses.

Parents also reported that by their junior year, many students in the class of 2019 who had always gotten A’s and B’s were suddenly getting C’s or failing math for the first time in their school careers. On Sept. 21, the Berkeley Unified School District’s public information officer provided the following information on the percentages of all Berkeley High math students who received a D or F over the past 3 semesters.

Percentage of Students Receiving D/F Grades in Berkeley High Math Courses Spring Semester 2017 through Spring Semester 2018

Semester 2, 2016-17 Semester 1, 2017-18 Semester 2, 2017-18
Math 1 28.4% 25.4% 28.0%
Math 2 25.2% 26.7% 26.9%
Math 3 — (not yet offered) 18.1% 20.7%

Over the past summer, several different parents, including myself, requested more extensive data about math performance including a full grade distribution. Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi informed me in an email on July 11 that the data staff would not be available to fulfill requests from the public until late August. He did suggest that he would direct data staff to “develop a specific set of indicators and metrics that will serve as district math goals and indicators that can be reviewed multiple times per year.”

More complete data will be helpful for all families, but as the senior class considers their futures in college or the job market, many would benefit from a broader context to put a lower-than-usual math grade in perspective right now.

At the PTSA meeting on June 6, (as noted in unpublished minutes taken by me as then-secretary of the PTSA), Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng told parents that the administration could not add a note on student transcripts to put a math grade in perspective, including the fact that Math 3 teachers were not given the extra support provided in the first years of Math 1 and 2 [See “Update on Common Core Mathematics at BHS” (item 12.2) presented to the superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District on March 22, 2017]. Instead, she assured parents that guidance counselors would communicate with colleges to explain the unique challenges of Math 3 for the class of 2019.

However, since California State Universities and University of California schools do not accept recommendations from teachers or counselors, students applying to those colleges are left on their own to explain a low grade in the “additional comments” section of the application. I recently made several efforts to contact the administration to ask if they would provide a public statement for CSU and UC applicants to allow students to put their math performance in a validated school-wide context. Most emails went unanswered, but I was told informally that the administration felt that the issue was best dealt with by students discussing their individual situation with their counselors.

I know that Berkeley High wants to support all students and help them succeed. Individual discussions with counselors are essential. However, through the Berkeley High Parent Advocate website, many parents told me their students believed a poor grade reflected their personal lack of ability in math, even when they knew many of their friends were failing as well. By dealing with this situation only on an individual level, Berkeley High prevents students from seeing their experience from a broader perspective and avoids accountability for the impact on hundreds of students.

There is no doubt that college admissions officers will give far more weight to a public statement from BUSD than an explanation from a student. I urge administrators to take inspiration from the core values of the promising new Universal 9th Grade program. Hive 2, “Integrity,” encourages students to “Tell the truth and keep your word; Demonstrate the courage to be your most ethical and most authentic self.” If we are asking this of our students, we should expect the same from our school and district leaders.

The math situation at Berkeley High is challenging and has no simple solution. However, all concerned members of our community can help the class of 2019 and future graduating classes by taking the following steps.

1) See Berkeley High Parent Advocate’s math page for limited information, supported by BUSD documents, to help Berkeley High students explain a low math grade to prospective employers and advocate for themselves on their college applications and when they meet with their counselors.

2) Email Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi (pasqualescuderi@berkeley.net)

and copy Dave Stevens (davestevens@berkeley.net) at Berkeley Research, Evaluation, and Assessment to ask for:

–The immediate release of information on the grade distribution (A through F) for Math 3 for the 2017-2018 school year (including percentage as well as the number of students receiving each grade as in the March 17, 2017 report).

–The same information as above for Math 1 and 2 as soon as possible, with regular updates after every semester.

–Comparative data from 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 for previous equivalent courses for Math 1, 2, and 3.

3) Contact all BUSD School Board Directors and 2018 School Board candidates and ask our elected officials to call for:

–The release of MVP math performance data outlined above.

–A rigorous review of the MVP curriculum, including feedback from all students through in-class surveys.

If the students in the class of 2019 had been born one year earlier, their math experience–and their choices for their future–would likely be significantly different. I urge our community to support all BUSD math students by calling for transparency and accountability today and in the years to come.

Donna Storey served as the secretary of the Academic Choice Advisory Council from 2014-2017 and is the administrator of the Berkeley High Parent Advocate website.