Silicon Valley”s largest technology companies were criticized last year after releasing data that showed African-Americans and Latinos make up only 3 percent to 4 percent of their tech workforce. In response, tech companies are now investing millions of dollars in initiatives they hope will help diversify the industry.
These investments are a step in the right direction. However, tech”s diversity problem does not start within the industry. It begins much earlier in workforce development with the artificial and often unintentional barriers students face within the K-12 education system.
A primary barrier is “math misplacement,” a disturbing practice that significantly restricts the number of African-American and Latino students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Math misplacement occurs when students are held back in math even though objective measures such as grades and test scores indicate they should advance to the next course. A study by the Noyce Foundation revealed that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by math misplacement. The study found that flawed math placement practices in nine Bay Area school districts forced many of these students to repeat math courses they had already taken, even though they had passed standardized tests, earned a “B” grade or better in the course or both.
When students are unfairly held back in math, consequences can be serious. Not only does it affect students” interest and ability to move on to higher level math courses, it also undermines their confidence to pursue a college degree or career in STEM.
This issue also has implications for the state”s economic competitiveness. Latinos and African-Americans now make up 58 percent of California”s children. With statewide STEM jobs expected to grow by 22 percent over the next five years, we should not be hindering these students” advancement in math. If they are unnecessarily held back, they will be less likely to pursue STEM careers.
The result is a future in which technology companies face a problem larger than a lack of workforce diversity — the inability to find enough local, skilled employees to remain globally competitive.
School districts can help eliminate math misplacement and ensure students have an opportunity to excel in mathematics by adopting fair, objective and transparent math placement policies. Senate Bill 359 — The California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015, authored by state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles — asks school districts to do just that.
SB 359 calls on districts to systematically consider multiple objective measures such as statewide assessments, grades and diagnostic placement tests when determining math course placement. And in most cases, this solution requires only a firm will to make it happen, as districts that have tackled the math misplacement issue have done so with existing resources.
Silicon Valley Community Foundation is leading the way to address math misplacement, working with 22 Bay Area school districts to help them adopt and implement fair, objective and transparent math placement policies. The foundation and the California School Boards Association are working closely to pass SB 359 because we believe this measure will help ensure students are given the opportunity to reach their academic potential.
We are calling on tech companies to join us in urging legislators to support SB 359 which comes before the Senate Appropriations committee on May 11. By doing so, they will help ensure that their investments in diversity are not curtailed by the unintended consequences of math misplacement.
Emmett Carson is CEO and President of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Vernon M. Billy is the CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association. They wrote this for this newspaper.