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.
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.