May 24, 2024
High School Math Policies

A New Equation for High School Math

Pamela Burdman
Melodie Baker
A New Equation for High School Math

The morning news you see. How your medical records are used. The algorithm reviewing your resume on LinkedIn. Who gets prioritized in college admissions. The programs in your area that get state and federal funding. The machines that tally your votes.

Data is all around us, and it is used to make decisions in almost every part of our society. It is the backbone of the rapid evolution of technology.

However, there has been a lag in updating math courses to align with the data science skills that students need to stay engaged and competitive in college and beyond.

At least two dozen states are now pursuing redesigns of their high school math courses and policies to better align with students’ 21st century needs and interests, and to eliminate disparities in access to advanced math courses, which especially affect underserved students. 

In Just Equations’ new report, Beyond Algebra: High School Math for a New Generation, we dive into the new directions several states are pursuing to modernize math courses and increase education equity, especially for the Black, Latinx, and low-income students who have historically faced barriers when it comes to access to advanced math courses.

In fact, of the state mathematics education leaders who responded to our Beyond Algebra survey on redesign goals, 82 percent listed “tackle disparities in access to advanced math courses for underserved students” as a top goal. 

An overwhelming 93 percent of the education leaders surveyed said that aligning mathematics courses with students' college and career interests was a top goal.

The typical high school math sequence of Algebra/Geometry/Algebra II dates back 130 years. Many students, as well as a number of teachers, are saying they want more from their math courses.

States have different ways of addressing the challenge of how to provide routes to multiple forms of advanced math—an issue that is often hotly debated: 

  • In Georgia, educators chose to modernize current Algebra II courses for all students after getting pushback when they explored creating alternative courses to Algebra II. The modernized version integrates traditional algebra with data science and other quantitative reasoning topics. These changes were part of new K–12 math standards that launched in the 2023–2024 school year and also included fourth-year options such as AP Statistics and Mathematics of Industry and Government. 
  • In Ohio, students are required to take four years of math, including Algebra II or an equivalent course. Schools are required to offer Algebra II and encouraged to offer at least one of four approved alternatives: Quantitative Reasoning, Data Science Foundation, Statistics and Probability, and Computer Science/Discrete Mathematics. And starting next fall, these equivalent classes can fulfill the Algebra II admissions requirement for Ohio’s public universities. 
  • Oregon has taken a significant departure from that traditional math sequence. Instead of the typical three-course requirement, the state’s two-year core curriculum focuses on algebra, geometry, and data science/statistics content. Based on their educational and career interests, Oregon students can choose among innovative courses that teach math modeling, computer science, data science, and other skills for their third-year math course. 

Giving students more options to take a variety of math courses, particularly advanced math courses outside the traditional accelerated pathway, is a major first step toward providing a relevant, engaging math education for all students.

Education leaders are also hoping their states’ redesigns will narrow the historic gap in access to advanced math courses that disproportionately affects Black and Latinx students. 

Washington and other states have addressed the disparities with automatic enrollment. All high school students who meet or exceed standards in the previous year are automatically placed into accelerated math courses. This puts them on track to take college-level courses by their senior year. 

More research is needed to examine the benefits of modernizing math courses and to explore what other options might be available to ensure students have the best opportunity possible to reach their goals in high school, college, and beyond.

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