This is the story of how math courses taken by fewer than 1 percent of applicants to the University of California played a dominant role in the state’s K–12 math education discussions for more than two years. To be more precise, it is less about the math courses they took, and more about those they didn’t take.
I’m referring to students who took statistics in high school, but not Algebra II. Though UC admissions policy has permitted that coursetaking pattern by applicants for at least a decade, it is rarely used. In the most recent application cycle, fewer than 400 applicants’ transcripts—out of about 206,000—listed a statistics course without Algebra II, according to public disclosures. Doing the math, that’s less than two-tenths of 1 percent.
A subset of those 400 are data science courses, computer-intensive versions of high school statistics that teach conceptual approaches to using complex data sets. A relatively new addition, they have been categorized by UC as statistics courses. Most students who take data science courses in the state take Algebra II first. Some have already taken precalculus or even calculus.
The idea of students taking data science courses in lieu of Algebra II only became a source of controversy once it appeared in California’s draft math framework a few years ago. The state does not require Algebra II for high school graduation. The draft—a set of guidelines for K–12 math education—merely listed a range of courses students could take after completing the two years of math that are required. It did not endorse any particular sequence of courses, but it did reference UC’s acceptance of data science courses.
That policy was apparently news to some university STEM faculty. Students interested in STEM majors were even less likely to take the alternate courses than others. They are typically advised to take precalculus, if not calculus, in high school. Still, the notion unsettled some of the faculty, who expected university-bound students to be steeped in the state’s math standards, including Algebra II. Though it is not a state graduation requirement, Algebra II is generally required for admission to public universities. The faculty worried that substitute courses could serve as detours off the STEM pathway, particularly for students of color.
They and their supporters have been loudly defending traditional courses such as Algebra II, considered a stepping stone to calculus, insisting that high school data science courses are no more rigorous than a class in first aid.
The resulting clash highlights the tension between retaining the high school math canon and making room in the four years of high school for modernized offerings that reflect the quantitative demands of the 21st century. But it also reflects contrasting views about math learning between college STEM faculty and many of those responsible for K–12 math education.
Data science courses taking the spotlight
In the beginning, there was Algebra II. Covering topics such as polynomial functions and exponentials, the course has been standard fare for high school graduation in some states. It is also a traditional requirement for admission to four-year universities and a prerequisite for calculus, which in turn leads to STEM fields. Yet, a slow drift away from the course has been driven by some K–12 math educators and higher education policymakers. They consider it a bloated course, burying a few important concepts amid a layers of archaic and uninspiring content.
Data science, a fast-growing field in higher education, is of increasing interest to K–12 educators. High school data science courses teach statistical concepts and computer programming using real-world data sets to analyze contemporary problems. The courses are not replacing traditional sequences leading to calculus for students interested in STEM. Schools are adding data science to existing options or integrating it into existing courses. Proponents argue that the result is a more relevant math course for all students and potentially an engaging entry point to STEM for students who may have been alienated by prior math courses.
Tension over the role of these courses in high school math was sparked by the framework’s reference to a 2020 version of UC’s policy on math requirements. Though UC admissions offices had accepted statistics courses as math courses for more than 15 years and had allowed them to “validate” (i.e., substitute for) Algebra II courses for seven admissions cycles by that point, the 2020 update more fully detailed the practice.
For students applying as freshmen in 2021, the online description abandoned the confusing use of the term “validation.” Instead, it referenced “advanced math” courses for the 11th and 12th grades, including computer science, discrete mathematics, probability, statistics—and data science—in addition to calculus and precalculus. UC requires a minimum of three years of math for admissions but recommends four.
The new approach was approved by UC’s faculty-led admissions board, the majority of whose members were STEM faculty at the time. It also applied to the California State University system. Because the courses qualified as statistics courses, the addition of data science did not represent an actual change.
The practice proceeded with little notice—perhaps because so few applicants utilized it—until a couple of years ago. But the new description made the courses more visible. It also aligned with K–12 math framework developers’ interest in expanding high school math course options in the state, to encourage more math coursetaking across the board.
California educators were not alone in that interest. At least 16 other states have added data science courses to their high school math options, according to the Data Science 4 Everyone coalition.
Revisiting Algebra II
The conflict over data science underscores the important question of whether and what Algebra II content constitutes essential college preparation, an issue I’ve been following over the past decade (I examined it in a 2015 report and in this 2022 blog post). Traditionally, mathematical rigor has been defined by the amount of algebra content, but more recent definitions focus on fostering higher-order thinking as opposed to covering specific math topics.
An important fact absent from recent conversations: Few students who take Algebra II courses in high school actually learn the content. Studies show that the expansion of Algebra II courses has not led to improved math knowledge. Likewise, fewer than 20 percent of students who take calculus in high school take Calculus II when they get to college. The remainder repeat first-semester calculus, take calculus prerequisite courses, or take a math course such as introductory statistics that doesn’t require them to have studied calculus at all.
Some math leaders lament a myopic focus on content lists and course names, at the expense of actual learning. One solution they have advocated is expanding the range of college math courses available to students beyond typical algebra-intensive offerings. “The status quo is unacceptable,” declared the five leading U.S. mathematics discipline societies in a joint 2015 report urging changes in math preparation:
There is a call to provide mathematically substantive options for students who are not headed to calculus. These entry courses should focus on problem solving, modeling, statistics, and applications. … We acknowledge the need to focus on the calculus sequence and ensure that pathways to it remain a high priority, as calculus is central to most further study in the mathematical sciences, but it behooves us to develop curricula effective for the majority of the population as well.
Postsecondary math pathways research (including this and this) has also demonstrated that students interested in majors not requiring calculus can succeed in general education math courses—often statistics—without knowledge of Algebra II. In fact, UC Berkeley’s popular Data 8 course requires only “basic” algebra as a prerequisite and contains virtually no Algebra II content. Piloted about eight years ago, the course is taken by thousands of Cal students per year to meet their general education math requirement.
While Algebra II remains within the Common Core math standards adopted by states including California, it occupies an uneasy position. As the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin noted in a 2018 report,
Using Algebra II as a gatekeeper to college admission might be defensible were there evidence that this content is essential to students’ success in college or in their future lives and careers. … There is mounting evidence that those students who do not take algebra courses that have been traditionally required are still successful in college.
The center recommends defining Algebra II equivalence “based on the preparation required for a seamless transition from high school to postsecondary education,” not on a one-to-one correspondence of topics. An alternative, they say, “requires prerequisite core algebraic expertise, but the course itself is not a mere subset of typical Algebra II content.”
To reinforce this notion, the Dana Center has also produced analyses of the mathematics needs of non-STEM disciplines including communications, criminal justice, social work, business, and elementary teaching, illustrating how they vary from the traditionally recommended math trajectory.
Both California State University’s Quantitative Reasoning Task Force and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Catalyzing Change project analyzed foundational high school math content, and both proposed paring nonessential content from Algebra II.
Implementing data science in high school
As states add data science to their K–12 offerings, many have revisited their emphasis on Algebra II for all students in the process. Some states, such as Virginia and Utah, have retained Algebra II as part of their required sequences. Others, including Ohio and Oregon, have allowed data science as alternative or “equivalent” courses, though not all universities recognize the equivalence.
In a third approach, Georgia designed a “modernized” Algebra II course that integrates data science concepts. Similarly, the Dana Center has developed a model for such a course. Others, such as the CourseKata founders, also California based, promote the idea of using data science courses to teach some fundamental Algebra II principles.
One of the first-known high school data science courses—and the first to receive university approval in California—was Introduction to Data Science, developed at UCLA with funding from the National Science Foundation. The course received its statistics approval in 2013, was piloted in 2014-15, and was replicated with support from a 2016 state-funded math readiness initiative.
In addition to covering high school statistics and many AP Statistics standards, the course teaches basic computer coding. Using the R programming language, students collect and analyze data from their lives. Designed to strengthen students’ quantitative skills in engaging and relevant ways, IDS has since been highlighted in multiple news stories, explored in one dissertation, and studied by research centers based at UCLA and Stanford.
Over the past nine years, it has grown from its pilot in 10 Los Angeles classrooms to a presence in 70-some districts across 11 states. In California, the majority of students taking the course do so only after completing Algebra II. In the meantime, several other high school data science efforts have arisen. The promotion of such options in the draft math framework was viewed as exciting by some and dangerous by others.
Calling for data on data science education
Recently, amid significant pressure from vocal STEM faculty, the UC admissions board signaled misgivings about its 2020 advanced math description. It is not clear, though, that the discussion has been informed by actual evidence. At a March meeting, members discussed concerns about a decline in students’ math preparation since 2020. The minutes make no mention of the most likely explanation: nationwide declines in learning resulting from a global pandemic and widespread school closures during that period.
The record instead reveals a suspicion that the drop resulted from students taking data science courses. That’s a peculiar conclusion, given that the courses still constitute a small proportion of math enrollments statewide, according to the most recent published figures. Remember: only two-tenths of a percent of UC applicants took statistics or data science in lieu of Algebra II. (At the April meeting, one board member put the blame not on data science, but on the elimination of the SAT and ACT tests in admissions. The minutes from the past three months have yet to be posted.)
The proposed math framework has since been approved by the California State Board of Education. The final version still recommends integrating data literacy throughout the K–12 curriculum, as well as offering high school data science courses. However, at the university’s request, mentions of data science courses as part of UC’s 2020 advanced math policy were removed, since that policy could change after an upcoming review by a work group.
News reports citing unnamed sources indicate that the admissions board is interested in reversing that policy, but the precise implications are not clear. The UC system has clarified that nothing will change for the coming school year, so schools have no need to change their schedules. But with no other details announced, questions abound: Are members focused only on data science courses, as the reports suggest? Surely any review should include statistics courses, since data science courses were approved in that category. Is the focus on the content or the course names? Could any courses covering data science qualify to replace Algebra II?
And more: Where does computer science, also on the list of advanced math courses, fit in? Would any changes affect only students taking specific courses in lieu of Algebra II? Or is the idea to remove the courses’ status as math courses altogether, including as fourth-year courses after Algebra II, a more extreme step? Why were board members apparently so quick to weigh in before the work group they are appointing begins to examine the issue, and with the specifics so unclear? Were they aware of the history of the courses in California or the broader trends in math education?
One moral of the story: The discussion needs more light and less heat.
Given the range of views about how to define foundational math, as well as the importance of STEM disciplines within the university, a review of math prerequisites is entirely sensible. But it needs to be conducted transparently and dispassionately. It should include input from K–12 math educators and math education researchers, as well as the state’s other public higher education systems.
Ensuring broader access to STEM disciplines for women and underrepresented minority groups is a priority for the UC system, the state, and the nation—but there is not unanimity about how best to achieve that, something the work group will have to consider. Furthermore, the university must also address the imperative for all students—STEM and non-STEM majors—to develop 21st-century data and statistical reasoning skills. There is little evidence that such a need is well served by the traditional set of courses.
To do the issue justice, the review needs to take full account not just of the concerns of STEM faculty, but also of the quantitative preparation valued by faculty in a broad range of disciplines, similar to the CSU’s 2016 task force. It must also consider knowledge gleaned from decades of education research on math preparation, and from longitudinal research on California students’ experience in such advanced courses—particularly the nine-year history of data science courses in the state.
However the faculty resolve the questions around Algebra II, it is critically important that they leave a place for statistics and data science courses in the high school math pathways that university-bound students pursue. All students deserve a rich, engaging, and rigorous high school math education that prepares them for the 21st century.
For more insights on the role of math in ensuring educational equity, subscribe to Just Equations’ newsletter.