An emotional, racially charged debate over whether to sort students into higher and lower tracks that has unfolded in school districts across the country in recent years is now underway on its biggest stage yet, as the state of California considers a new math framework.

Advocates for the new California math guidelines say “de-tracking,” or mixing together students of varying academic performance, can help all students, particularly those who would have languished in lower-level classes. It can also unravel racial segregation inside schools. Almost everywhere, White and Asian American students are more likely to be placed in higher tracks, with Black and Latino students more likely to be placed in lower tracks.

But many parents — especially those of high-achieving students — are opposed.

At a public meeting in California, one parent said she was in tears thinking about the state’s proposal to de-track math. She saw it bringing children like hers down and said schools should try to bring low-achieving students up instead. “Don’t put down other kids who are really hard-working,” she said.

The battle over tracking is another chapter in an intense national debate over how schools can create a more equitable system for students of color and whether changes will threaten other students, many of them White, who are benefiting from existing advantages.

Where some see a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, others see an unsettling and overly broad focus on matters of race, and a threat to children who are succeeding in the current system.

“It tends to be a very complicated issue around socioeconomics, around race, around privilege and around ableism — who is high ability and who is not,” said Carol Corbett Burris, who de-tracked courses at South Side High School in suburban Rockville Centre, N.Y., when she was principal two decades ago and now runs the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group. “Lots of schools attempt to do it in a very well-meaning way only to get pushback.” Recent research from South Side High found that de-tracking led more students to take advanced courses later in high school, with overall scores in those classes rising or staying flat.

The California Department of Education is considering a new framework that could affect how millions of students there learn math.

There are two approaches to de-tracking: One advances all students in an “honors-for-all” approach; the other slows the curriculum down for all, arguing this will benefit advanced students by helping them to truly absorb math concepts and build a stronger foundation for advanced work later.

The California framework uses the second approach, but amid intense opposition the recommendations are being revised and softened, recognizing that the tracking is likely to persist.

As is, the framework recommends that all students be mixed into classes together through 10th grade, and that everyone wait until ninth grade to take Algebra 1. Today many advanced students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade or even seventh grade. If adopted, it would be a recommendation, not a mandate. But past recommendations have proved influential.

Backers hope teaching all children together will set up more students for advanced coursework during their final years of high school. The idea is supported by two professional organizations of math educators and many researchers.

“We know that tracking looks horrible when you look at the racial inequities, and we have to ask, ‘What do we want for this country? Do we want a country that has these racial divides in achievement?’ If we don’t, we need to work on a different model,” said Jo Boaler, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, one of the lead authors of the proposed new framework. “If you are told in sixth grade, ‘You’re in a lower math track,’ that changes your mind-set and your belief about yourself. Going forward, they think math is not in my future.”

Critics fear mixed-ability courses won’t challenge higher-achieving children and will put unreasonable burdens on teachers. They say it could undermine the very goal it’s meant to achieve.

“The best way we can serve high-achieving Black, Hispanic and poor kids is toeva give them an accelerated curriculum,” said Tom Loveless, a former scholar with the Brookings Institution, who has studied tracking for years and is unconvinced that reducing tracking closes racial achievement gaps. “De-tracking is … ultimately going to harm the kids it’s intended to help.”

But sorting students into ability groups depends on parent advocacy and implicit biases of teachers in addition to achievement and ability. Black and Hispanic students are less likely to be identified as gifted and talented, and less likely to be enrolled in advanced courses. That’s true even when controlling for previous achievement, said Halley Potter, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, which advocates for school integration strategies.

She said students who start out with similar, lower test scores do better when placed in higher-level courses than in lower-level courses. “Grouping all the low-performing students into one class is not an effective way to help struggling kids catch up,” she said.

In 2013-2014, federal data show, Black students made up about 15 percent of public school students, but 10 percent of those identified as gifted. They represented 7 percent of those taking calculus.

Latino students were similarly underrepresented in higher-level math courses, while White and Asian American students were disproportionately likely to be in advanced tracks and to be identified as gifted.

These data have prompted districts across the country — from small rural districts to middle schools in New York City — to reduce or eliminate tracking.

A few years ago, Cambridge Public Schools outside of Boston began offering “honors for all” to ninth grade students in English and social studies, a de-tracking program that more recently expanded to higher grades and to math. Middle schools also began mixing ability groupings in math to set students up for success in high school.

“If we believe that diversity is a strength of our community, that part of learning is hearing from diverse perspectives, and that we can have high expectations for all students, then we can provide the supports in order to get them there,” said Superintendent Kenneth Salim.

A spokeswoman said data is not yet available on math changes, but the district hopes the changes will narrow racial gaps in test results and participation in Advanced Placement courses.

Evanston Township High School District 202, just outside Chicago, began de-tracking in 2010 with freshman English and history, moving from five levels to one. Students of all abilities study in the same classrooms, though they can earn honors credit through strong performance.

The result has been racial integration of classrooms in a district where nearly half of students are White, 25 percent are Black and 20 percent are Latino. District data show a rise in Black and Latino student participation in Advanced Placement classes in the upper grades, and more students passing AP tests. In 2019, the school de-tracked geometry, the math class most ninth-graders take.

There were strong objections at first, said Pete Bavis, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. He recalls one parent warning of “bright flight,” a term that struck him as “about as racially coded as you can get.” But he said complaints fell away once the program was underway.

“Once we proved we could implement this, we were off and running,” he said.

It took significant teacher training. In math, the district shifted its approach from explaining how to do a problem and having students replicate the work on their own to more open-ended questions that let students engage on multiple levels. It’s called a “low-floor, high-ceiling” approach.

So a teacher might tell the class that she has a bucket filled with water and ask students what they are wondering about the situation, said Dale Leibforth, who chairs the school’s math department. Some students might want to calculate how much water is in the bucket based on its dimensions, a fairly straightforward problem. Others, though, might explore what happens if there’s a leak and water is draining as the bucket is being filled. That could involve calculating the rate of change, which has an element of calculus in it.

“It’s redefining what the math class looks like,” Leibforth said.

Other communities are reducing the number of levels they offer but have not fully de-tracked their classes.

In Upper Dublin School District, north of Philadelphia, the schools eliminated the lowest-level classes after Black parents formally complained to the U.S. Department of Education that these classes were disproportionately filled with Black students. The district also changed a policy that had made it difficult for students to enroll in an upper-level course if a teacher did not recommend it. Parents had been forced to sign a form acknowledging that they were enrolling “against educational advice,” with the understanding that students cannot later drop the course and will not get any extra help. The district eliminated that rule.

Those changes were meant to advance equity, said Steven Yanni, who embraced the new policies soon after he became superintendent in 2018.

“There was a lot of hesitancy about removing the lowest level,” he said. Teachers, he said, worried the classes would be too rigorous, and parents worried the classes would be watered down to accommodate them. The concerns were unfounded, he said. “Now they are in higher classes and they are performing fine.”

Still, he said he would not support eliminating levels altogether.

“To me that’s one step too far,” he said. “I do think when you go to just one level, what winds up happening is you do create classes where the range of student abilities is so great that you don’t do justice to any kid in that group.”

Others say it is possible to go to just one level. Laying the groundwork for California’s proposed framework was San Francisco. In 2014, the district overhauled its curriculum to group all students with a mix of abilities through 10th grade. Almost everyone is taught Algebra 1 in ninth grade and geometry in 10th. Students who want to take AP Calculus their senior year may accelerate, for instance by combining Algebra 2 and precalculus in 11th grade.

The district was looking to unravel the pervasive classroom racial segregation that came with tracking and rethinking the best way to teach, said Lizzy Hull Barnes, mathematics and computer science supervisor for the district. The result, she said, is that “more students enrolled in advanced math courses, and it’s a more diverse group of students.”

The district also points to a drop in students repeating Algebra 1, an increase in students meeting math requirements over three years and a pre-pandemic drop in D and F grades. Still, while the percentage of Black and Latino students taking Advanced Placement math has increased, the numbers remain small.

There have been fewer attempts to create statewide policy. In Virginia, officials appeared to have floated a version of de-tracking, prompting an outcry. The state quickly backtracked. Now in California, backers of the new framework are pointing to the results in San Francisco, amid a chorus of opposition.

California’s proposed framework is like San Francisco’s and recommends a slower progression through math for all students.

Backers argue that too often students are rushed through the math levels in a quest to reach calculus and do not truly absorb the big ideas that underpin mathematics. Slowing down the sequence will benefit top students and those who struggle, they say. Those who want to advance to calculus in their senior year will be able to do so by accelerating their work later on in high school.

After the proposal was released by the California Department of Education, it went before the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which sought public comment.

Manuel Rustin, chair of the commission and a teacher in Pasadena, Calif., said the new approach would benefit children like he had been. As a seventh-grader, he said, he was placed on an advanced track but never knew why, or why other students were not. He said he’s not sure it helped him.

“I raced through math like so many other students,” he said. “It just felt like a rat race in these classes to memorize these procedures, these formulas. It never really meshed with me.”

Negative comments have rained down on the state commission, both in writing and during a recent public meeting held online. Some parents spoke in emotional terms about the importance of providing their children with accelerated options. Some predicted that eliminating advanced tracks would drive families who can afford it out of public schools. Others said their own children were gifted and needed challenging material that would not be delivered in a mixed-ability classroom.

“I can tell you that putting advanced students with average students or below-average students all in one class doesn’t work,” said one mother. Speaking of her daughter, she said, “She’s a gifted child.”

One father said his son never fit in at school until he found the advanced math program. “Stop the assault on excellence. You don’t lift people by bringing other people down.”

Another father said it was wrong to hold children back. “I want to believe in public schools, however, I hope, I only hope, that this proposal will lead to a parents revolt. It is simply outrageous.”

Most speakers identified themselves, but the state does not release their names and it was not possible to determine their proper spellings.

In response to criticism like this, the state is revising the framework to acknowledge that some schools will continue tracking, officials said. Boaler, one of the co-writers, said Thursday that a revised version will advise districts using tracking to wait until eighth grade to separate students, look at more than test scores in sorting students, allow for flexibility after classes begin and be on alert for racial disparities.

That may be welcome news to critics such as the California Association for the Gifted, which has been lobbying against the framework. The problem, the group says, is that school districts are not doing a good enough job finding all the gifted children who need advanced coursework.

The group and its backers say there’s nothing wrong with offering different classes to different students.

“I don’t think that all students should be taught in the same way,” said Angela Hasan, a professor of clinical education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, which sponsors a certification program for gifted education. “That doesn’t make sense, especially if you have a child in that class and you know that child thinks differently or is more advanced than other students.”