July 13, 2021
High School Math Policies

Can Advanced Placement Clear Up the Mixed Signals of Precalculus?

Pamela Burdman
Can Advanced Placement Clear Up the Mixed Signals of Precalculus?

At most U.S. colleges, Precalculus is considered a college-level course. But when taught in high school, the course rarely confers college credit. More typically, high school Precalculus signals readiness for a college Calculus—though often, it doesn’t even do that: It’s not uncommon for students who take Precalculus in high school to repeat the course when they get to college.

Such opaque and misaligned high-school-to-college math sequences send mixed signals to students that unfairly complicate their educational journeys. But transparency requires first pinpointing the source of confusion. For instance, it could be that high schools aren’t teaching Precalculus effectively, or that teachers need more support to teach it. Or perhaps the real problem is that colleges don’t trust high schools to teach the course, so they require students to take placement tests or repeat the class, whether needed or not. Another explanation for the repetition could be that high schools and colleges teach different versions of the course.

Fortunately, a group of leading mathematicians and math educators are investigating the possibility of addressing this array of potential problems by developing an AP Precalculus course. David Bressoud, a member of the group that is advising the College Board, highlights some of his thoughts in a recent blog post.

There are reasons to be cautious about this attempt. For one thing, AP Statistics would be a better choice for most students who have ruled out a major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). And as Bressoud notes, Precalculus was initially conceived as a high school course, so conferring AP credit could seem misguided. Plus anyone concerned about the current race to AP Calculus, which is arguably driven by students’ desire to gain a leg up in college admissions, may ask whether another AP course—especially one whose main purpose is to prepare students for Calculus—could only exacerbate inequities.

Bressoud also points out that some highly selective colleges do not offer Precalculus for credit (if at all). At colleges that do, it’s too often “a terrible course: a collection of facts and procedures, most of which students have seen before but not mastered, now coming at them much faster,” he says. That does not sound like something worth replicating.

Yet, on balance, he concludes that AP Precalculus could help improve the success of high school Precalculus by providing a set of clear expectations as well as effective professional development. Importantly, he also thinks that an AP Precalculus option could help alleviate some of the pressure high school students face to reach AP Calculus. Calculus is the only AP course that requires students to accelerate through a course sequence as early as middle school or skip a high school course (sometimes Precalculus). Middle school math acceleration only compounds the practice of tracking, where schools place students into qualitatively different math sequences, often based on race and gender.

Enabling students to earn AP credit without needing to accelerate is a worthy goal. It’s not a given, however, that a new AP course will, on its own, accomplish that. The growth of AP Statistics (which requires no acceleration) has not halted the obsession with Calculus.

Nor has the drive to accrue AP credits stopped with senior-year Calculus classes. More and more students are now taking AP math before their senior year: Last year, almost 50,000 took the BC exam (which covers the second semester of Calculus) in eleventh grade or earlier, and there is already clamor for adding an AP Multivariable Calculus course, Bressoud notes.

While enthusiasm for math learning should be celebrated, institutions such as the UC system, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, as well as the Mathematics Association of America have cautioned that acceleration and hyper-acceleration don’t necessarily serve students. Too many students manage to pass AP courses without truly developing the math literacy they need in college, while bypassing math content that might be more relevant for their interests.

The race to Calculus has become ingrained among students, families, and teachers as the route to selective colleges. Prestigious institutions such as the University of California (UC) add an additional GPA point for an AP course (bringing an A up to five points, instead of the usual four—even though some evidence suggests that approach is not merited). If acceleration to AP Calculus continues unabated, AP Precalculus could allow ambitious students to rack up even more points on their way.

It’s encouraging that specialists such as Bressoud, who is well aware of these hazards, are advising the College Board about the AP Precalculus possibility. If the course comes into existence, there needs to be an explicit strategy to address the risks, not just in the course’s design, but also in its rollout. Schools, teachers, parents, and admissions offices need to provide clear signals in order to support deeper math learning for more students.

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