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Kids are probably better at math than they think. A new Texas law could help them realize it.

Martin do Nascimento

A new Texas law aims to get more students into advanced math classes in middle school. Researchers and advocates say the move will increase access to these advanced courses, which studies show improve students' chances of earning a degree later in life.

Senate Bill 2124, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last month, requires school districts and charter schools to automatically enroll fifth graders who score in the top 40% on the state standardized math test in advanced math in sixth grade. Families can opt their children out of the advanced class if they choose.

Advocates hope that creating a standard way for school systems to identify which students to place in advanced math will make access to those courses more equitable. One of the organizations that supported this legislation is E3 Alliance, an Austin-based group that works with Central Texas school districts to improve student outcomes. E3 found that previous policies were leaving out many Black and Hispanic fifth graders with the highest test scores in math.

Kristen Hengtgen is a senior policy analyst with The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in education. She praised the new Texas law and said many more students are ready to take advanced math than school districts think.

“Yet, traditionally students are identified for advanced coursework through subjective measures like teacher recommendation or counselor recommendation,” she said. “And often teachers recommend students who fit their personal idea of what an advanced student is, and often that is students who look like them.”

With this law, Texas joins five other states that have opt-out, also known as auto-enrollment, policies: North Carolina, Washington, Illinois, Colorado and Nevada. Hengtgen said it is a big deal for a state as large as Texas to implement this type of policy.

“This will have a huge impact,” she said. “The sheer numbers of students who will be identified for advanced math in Texas and in the country is so exciting.”

Hengtgen said data from states like North Carolina and Washington, which have had opt-out policies for a while, are very encouraging.

“They just really show more students in advanced classes, huge reductions in gaps across racial demographics, and students’ GPAs do not go down when we’re adding thousands of more students to advanced classes,” she said.

How an opt-out policy is working in Central Texas 

While the new law is only about a month old, there are school districts in Central Texas that have had similar policies in place for several years now. One of them is the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, located southwest of Austin.

“We found that we wanted to open a wider door to include more students who were scoring at that level, so we went to an opt-out policy about three years ago,” said Derek McDaniel, the district’s executive officer of curriculum and instruction.

Before implementing the opt-out policy based on the results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, math test, the district required students to opt into advanced math classes. Either a teacher would recommend them, their parents would advocate for them or the students themselves would try to get placed on that track.

“About three years ago, around 20 to 22 percent of a cohort was enrolling in advanced math from fifth to sixth grade,” he said. “When we went to an opt-out policy, we’ve now increased that to between 35 and 40 percent of a cohort gets automatically enrolled in advanced math.”

Jeremy Thoman, a sixth grade math teacher in Hays CISD, said when districts do not identify students who can do well in advanced math, they end up bored in classes that are too easy for them. But he knows signing up for a rigorous math course can be intimidating or even unappealing.

“People don’t actually hate math. They hate struggling," he said. "They hate having difficulty with things. When you’re good at something, you love it. When you’re not good at something, you hate it."

With that in mind, Thoman said he spends the first few months of each school year trying to build up students’ confidence. And he said most students end up sticking with advanced math.

He also said there's no downside for students who don’t continue on that track for the rest of middle school. He pointed out that the advanced curriculum for sixth grade includes concepts students learn in seventh grade.

“If they don’t do well during the sixth grade — they struggled and it doesn’t work — they go to seventh grade having already seen most of the things they’re going to see, and then they have an opportunity to master it then,” he said.

Equitable access to advanced math  

E3 Alliance has worked with Hays CISD and other Central Texas school districts on implementing opt-out policies for advanced math. Jennifer Saenz, E3’s senior director for strategic initiatives and policy, said the group became concerned after Texas eliminated the requirement for four years of math in high school starting in the 2014-15 school year.

E3 Alliance's research has found that students who take four years of math in high school are twice as likely to get a postsecondary credential, such as a certificate, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Students whose fourth year of math is a college-aligned course are six times as likely to get a postsecondary credential.

“So by removing those math requirements, we became fearful that we were going to graduate students not ready to enter postsecondary, but more importantly, not ready to complete postsecondary,” she said.

Saenz said E3 worked backward to see which students were taking four years of math in high school. They turned out to be students who took advanced math in middle school, culminating with Algebra 1 in eighth grade.

“So then we wanted to understand, well, who’s taking Algebra I in eighth grade and who gets to take Algebra I in eighth grade?” she said. “What we found is that that decision is determined for students in fifth grade.”

E3 found school districts were using a variety of methods to determine who should start taking advanced math in sixth grade. While some districts were using data from standardized tests, others relied on recommendations from teachers and counselors. Saenz said the patchwork of policies was leaving out many Black and Hispanic students. In 2017, E3 looked at how eighth graders taking Algebra I scored on the STAAR math test in fifth grade. They wanted to determine whether the top 20% of scorers were placed in advanced math in middle school.

“What we should have seen is 100% of all of the students in the top quintile,” she said. “And yet we only saw 33% of our Black students [and] 46% of our Hispanic students that had scored within the top quintile were actually being placed on advanced math track.”

In comparison, 90% of Asian fifth graders and 75% of white fifth graders who scored in the top 20% on the STAAR math test were placed in advanced math.

School districts like Hays CISD that have implemented opt-out math policies based on standardized testing scores have seen a more diverse group of students taking advanced math.

"We have seen our advanced math enrollment numbers for all demographics increase," McDaniel said. "But specifically with students of poverty and students of color, we have seen an increase in the number of students in advanced math tracks."

Saenz said the opt-out policy for middle school advanced math used in Central Texas districts has also helped increase the number of emergent bilingual students taking Algebra I in eighth grade by six times since 2017.

Preparing students for higher-paying jobs 

Senate Bill 2124 was a bipartisan bill that sailed through the Texas Legislature’s regular session this year. That was something of a rarity in a legislative session that saw many divisions over education-related issues from school vouchers to library books. But state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, said it was not hard to build consensus for this evidence-based bill.

“We’re all looking at the same thing and wanting to go to the same place and seem to have the same direction in mind, and that doesn’t always happen over here at the Capitol,” she said.

Howard, who also served on the Eanes ISD school board in the 1990s, worked with state Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican from the Houston area, on the legislation.

“With a majority of Texas students not meeting grade-level expectations, we have to do what we can as lawmakers to make sure that we increase rigor and that we improve outcomes,” said Creighton, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Creighton and Howard both said the new law will play an important role in preparing Texas students for higher-paying careers that increasingly require a postsecondary credential.

“We just are hearing over and over again from CEOs and hiring professionals with companies that the workforce is just not where it needs to be,” Creighton said.

Howard said it is important for lawmakers to make sure their constituents have the opportunity to fill the jobs of the future.

“Most of those are going to require some form of secondary credential,” she said. “This gets them on the pathway to do that, and I think that’s only to the good of all of us.”

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Becky Fogel is the editor and producer of statewide newscasts for the Texas Newsroom. She previously worked for the shows Texas Standard and Science Friday. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco.