8th Grade Math: A Bellwether for STEM Success

By Alysa Cisneros

Tech companies are not the only ones who would benefit from closing the 8th grade math achievement gap. This is a major concern for parents, as well.

My daughter, who is mixed race, just started 6th grade, and is currently meeting standards in math. As both a parent and an education policy professional, I am very aware of the statistics surrounding young women of color in math. Holding her interest in math over these next two years will be critical, even if she chooses not to enter a STEM field later in life. Computational thinking and mastering basic algebraic concepts are key components to learning how to think critically. This is an important skill for professionals and workers of every stripe. Students who struggle with 8th grade math miss out on a computational thinking foundation that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

To ensure that my daughter stays on top of math achievement and doesn’t fall through the gap, her teachers work with her on a very individual level. They let her correct mistakes, elevating her self-efficacy and willingness to make errors, learn from them, and try again. We are fortunate to be in a district where every student’s learning is addressed in this way. It is wonderful that there are plenty of resources to support this style of teaching, though not every math-8th-gradedistrict has this capability.

Diversifying the STEM pipeline is one of the most pressing issues facing the Silicon Valley. Not only is a diverse workforce crucial important to raising up all of our communities in the tides of our robust local economy, but many see it as critical to business success. Diverse teams are often the most successful teams, according to McKinsey, and inclusive hiring practices have been adopted by some of Silicon Valley’s largest and most respected employers.

But herein lies the problem: how do companies source diverse, homegrown STEM talent? Often, there is a dearth of local, diverse candidates to meet the demand for a more inclusive workplace. This achievement gap can be traced back to one critical stage in K-12 education: meeting or exceeding standards in 8th grade math.

Students who meet or exceed these standards are far more likely to continue onto STEM educations and careers. Hence, increasing the number of local 8th graders who meet and exceed math standards is a good start. “Mission accomplished” would be all students, regardless of their background, arrive in high school with a solid foundation in math, paving the way for future success in STEM courses and the option to pursue it as a career.

As a region, Silicon Valley outperforms California in terms of how many students are prepared to tackle high school math. According to the SVCIP 2017 report, 53% of our 8th graders meet or exceed math standards, compared to just under 40% of Californians overall. Despite an overall higher percentage of high school math readiness, disparities between racial group and gender success remain pronounced in Silicon Valley math achievement.

Organizations and programs like ALearn; Elevate Math; and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s program partnership with the Mayor’s office, STEM with Mayor Sam, all work to provide added enrichment to catch students in middle school and keep them from falling through the achievement gap in 8th grade. Working in late elementary and early middle school, students who are not quite proficient, but also are not too far behind, can be identified and targeted for extra help and mentorship to bring them up to speed. Most of these programs also focus on parent and family involvement to build a learning community. These programs operating in high-need districts can be game changers for the students and families who participate.

Individual programs and efforts are heartening, and change lives. Robust public/private partnerships between industry leaders and school districts have been used to great effect in Oakland and San Francisco. These cities are building comprehensive computer science and STEM programs in their schools with significant financial and volunteer commitments from regional companies. Bringing Silicon Valley employers together with South Bay school districts to seed and develop a strong early intervention program could change the education and career trajectory for countless students. 8th grade math is the single most accurate bellwether for math success in high school and beyond. For more equitable outcomes, we must also think about the experiences students have with STEM leading up to the critical 8th grade assessment.


Alysa Cisneros is Education Policy & Programs Associate at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.