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I took calculus as a high school senior. It was the ultimate destination on the advanced math track. Only 20 or so students at the large Catholic all-girls school I attended in Chicago were in the class. Back then, there was a four-year sequence: algebra, geometry, trigonometry, then calculus. It was an academic badge of honor. By the spring of 12th grade, I had been accepted to both selective colleges where I applied — one public and one private. 

That was a while ago and much has changed since then. Yet calculus continues to enjoy a singular status in high school advanced math. And, according to a new report I co-authored for Just Equations, the benefits of that elevated standing are starkly apparent: Based on data from surveys and interviews, “A New Calculus for College Admissions” reveals how deep-seated preferences for calculus weigh heavily in decisions about who gets admitted to college.

Yet does it make sense for calculus to have such an influential role in college admission when so few college majors actually require the course? There are other ways for high school students to gain the quantitative reasoning skills that will prepare them for the rigors of college and the workplace.

It’s time to reconsider the dominance of calculus.

It’s been more than 10 years since math and science leaders began calling for change. In 2011, a panel of mathematicians and math educators mapped college-prep sequences in high school math and proposed pathways that led not only to calculus but also to statistics, linear algebra and data analysis.

It’s time to reconsider the dominance of calculus.

In 2012, the panel issued a joint statement asserting that calculus should not be the “ultimate goal of the K-12 mathematics curriculum.” Subsequent research and statements from math experts questioned the relevance and efficacy of traditional pathways to calculus for all students. More recently, in 2020, the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center reported that the “narrow pathway toward calculus … fails to serve most students.”

Yet college admissions officers continue to follow the same old playbook. More than 75 percent of those surveyed for our report said AP Calculus carries great weight in admission decisions, while only 38 percent said the same for AP Statistics. Close to 80 percent agreed that students who have taken calculus in high school are more likely to succeed in college — despite research showing that high school calculus does not necessarily correlate with advanced placement in college math. Thirty percent of students who’ve taken calculus in high school repeat the content in college calculus classes. Fifty percent take a step back and sign up for precalculus or remedial algebra — or they take statistics or opt out of math entirely.

Fortunately, efforts to make high school math more relevant are continuing and slowly gaining traction. High school data science classes, which teach how to use statistical methods and programming to query and analyze real-world data, are a budding development. A handful of states — Ohio, Oregon and New Jersey among them — are piloting high school data science courses or adding them to their K-12 math standards. California’s state university systems have been leaders in listing data science as an acceptable course for admission; the state has also piloted successful secondary and postsecondary versions of a data course. And universities across the country are now offering data science courses and majors.

Related: OPINION: We can make math less traumatic by ensuring every student is on the right pathway

More relevant math options will help students focus their academic and career goals. Research found that 80 percent of students said they took AP Calculus because it “looks good on college applications.” Not a ringing endorsement. In fact, admissions officers say students who wish to gain admission to competitive universities often feel compelled to take the course, even if they intend to major in social science or humanities.

It would make more sense, then, for counselors and admissions officers to help students choose their high school math courses in the context of their desired course of study in college. After all, this is what most colleges do: Students interested in science and engineering take the traditional algebra-to-calculus path. Those interested in social sciences, communications and psychology pursue data science or statistics. A third pathway, quantitative reasoning, is often recommended for those planning to major in English, the arts and humanities.

Three steps will get things moving in the right direction. One: Raise awareness and understanding about new math options for high school and college study. Two: Offer training for high school counselors and college admissions officers to address misplaced perceptions or bias about emerging math pathways. Three: Facilitate conversations for secondary and postsecondary math educators, administrators and college access specialists to inform new policy developments. Faculty in disciplines that rely on math and quantitative reasoning — biology, political science and architecture, for instance — should also be included in these discussions.

It’s time to move beyond the narrow confines of the calculus track and embrace a broader, more relevant path instead.

Veronica Anderson is a communications and strategy consultant and co-author of the report “A New Calculus for College Admissions: How Policy, Practice, and Perceptions of High School Math Education Limit Equitable Access to College.”

This piece about improving high school math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. Response to: Rethink taking calculus in High School

    As someone who didn’t have the opportunity 40 years ago then took calculus in college 30 years ago, this is is not the answer. For me going back to school not being prepared for the rigor was horrible. Calc for the vast majority is hard. Taking calc in college, many times in a large classroom by a grad student or tenured faculty member who doesn’t care whether the student passes is even worse. I’ve talked to many colleagues over the years who have been through both, the response is high school. Why? Because it allow you to explore other areas without extending your time in college and racking up more debt.

    The kids taking calc in high school are doing so for good reasons. They plan on taking majors that require, many on acceptance to the program. Other reasons include those above. A better question is why do so many STEM fields require calc. Long standing response among college students is calc weeds out those who can’t make it in the major.

    For me, I’ve never used calc outside the classroom. I’ve used a lot of other math over the years in my job, never calc. I will say calc really helps you practice the requirements prerequisites that builds on. Other than that, don’t know.

    With the current career space in the US, we need students trained with these skills. Calc in HS or other alternatives. We need their skills badly. The US is also competing with countries in Europe and Asia that prepare their students for these jobs. We have a large Asian community in this area. They dominate the STEM fields. Seeing how hard their kids do in school, I understand. Many don’t understand why the US education system is so unprepared.

  2. You must have absolutely no idea how much calculus (and then analysis) is required to understand the most basic and fundamental concepts in statistics.

    And students find linear algebra far more challenging than calculus. Offering linear algebra in high school to students who can’t even do AP calc is equivalent to reading Foucault to someone who can’t understand Plato.

    Stop destroying math education. If you know nothing about math, then understand that your opinion matters as much as a that of a stack of four rabid raccoons in a trench coat.

  3. I was always very good at math prior to calculus. I was one of the ones that didn’t need to show work, most problems could be done mentally. Once I hit calculus, I felt dumb and had no idea the reason for any of the strange equations being taught. I’m about to graduate university with a math heavy degree, focused on real estate investment finance. Calculus benefits almost no one not running down the engineering path, meanwhile statistics and other finance related math is something that would have lifelong application for most people. Budgeting is the most direct use, but the mindset you get when being taught finance from the numbers side could go a long way to help with broad financial literacy while still being sophisticated math.

  4. I am writing a response to this article as a current college student. I took AP Calculus in High School not at all for its influence on the admissions process, but as a way to get those courses out of the way during the college curriculum. While I agree that calculus should not necessarily be the end goal for everyone, I feel that it should be for those who will need to take it as part of their college education (i.e. those in STEM fields). I do not find the reasoning for offering calculus in high school unless it is an AP Calculus or one that can be taken for transfer credit. It would be much better to spend a whole year strengthening prerequisite topics and possibly exploring statistics and data science to prepare students for further math if taking an AP Calculus is not an option.

  5. As a retired HS math educator in CA, I agree with this opinion whole heartedly. In the 90s, I was part of a group of math educators who took a College Board course to learn how to teach AP Statistics in HS. Our main objective was to offer HS seniors who were not interested in taking Calculus and who wanted to major in Business, Social Science, Psychology etc. a relevant alternative math course with project based curriculum. Later on I taught a non AP Statistics course open to for all seniors. I enjoyed teaching Statistics at the high school level for several years till I retired.

  6. My public HS didn’t offer calculus in the 60s. I wish it had. I wanted to go to engineering school and took every math and science class the HS offered incl geometry, algebra I & II, and trig. Got to engineering school to discover that many in the required Calculus I class had taken HS calculus. The first college course was just review for them. Not for me. I had to pass this class to move onto the next class, etc. Fortunately I could drive back to my HS on Friday afternoons. A sympathetic trig teacher tutored me so I was able to pass that Calc I class. Without his help I wouldn’t have graduated on time, and maybe not at all. As it was I met my wife as a 2nd year student, graduated with honors and went on to work for companies like Apple Computer (just Apple now of course). My wife and I, with our four children and their families, will be celebrating our 50th anniversary next month. I can’t thank that HS trig teacher enough. Would have been simpler if the HS had just offered calculus to those students that wanted it…

  7. There is this phobia and fear about Calculus. Actually Calculus if we’ll taught is a very easy subject to learn and a very useful one. I have taught Calculus to probably over 1000 students. I am not an educator but was an Engineering manager for several Fortune 500 companies. I taught myself Calculus when I was 14 and in college took over 50 credits of College Math. I am almost 70 years old now and I believe I can consult and understand most branches of science and engineering because of my strength in Calculus and Math and Physics.

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