February 22, 2024
Math and College Admissions

The Latest in the Inexplicable War on High School Data Science Courses

Pamela Burdman
 The Latest in the Inexplicable War on High School Data Science Courses

For more than a decade, California students have had the option of taking courses such as statistics and data science to meet their required third year or recommended fourth year of math for admission to California’s public universities.

This week, a faculty committee at the University of California took a radical step toward removing both of those options. 

Much of the prior debate over these courses had centered on whether they could “validate,” or fill in for, high school Algebra II, a reasonable question that committee answered with a resounding no. This determination echoed earlier statements from the UC faculty on this question.

But the committee didn’t stop there. According to a report published just yesterday, the group also decided that at least some data science courses can no longer fulfill the recommended fourth year of math—even for students who have already taken Algebra II—and sent a clear signal that statistics courses are next on the chopping block.

It is dumbfounding, to say the least, that in the 21st century world of data-driven decision-making, following the very advent of public AI use, courses rich in highly relevant quantitative skills will no longer count as math courses for purposes of university admission. 

The report provided no clear rationale for rejecting certain data science courses, beyond that they don’t incorporate topics such as exponential and logarithmic functions, polynomials and factoring, inverses of functions, trigonometry, and conic sections. Such a standard for fourth-year math courses would disqualify most high school statistics courses—even AP Statistics—not to mention other courses, such as computer science, that also meet the recommended fourth-year requirement. (Frankly, it would invalidate most college introductory statistics courses, also.) 

In fact, the three popular data science courses the UC faculty targeted—all of them developed at California research universities—were initially approved because they met the criteria for statistics courses. Yet almost none of the topics the UC faculty were looking for in fourth-year topics is part of the standard high school statistics course, according to this chapter of the 2013 California Mathematics Framework. The group didn’t disqualify statistics for fourth-year math—yet. But Stage 2 of the process, which has already begun, will examine the qualifications for fourth-year math courses, and if the group sticks to the rationale used for data science, statistics and computer science courses won’t be able to survive. 

Proceeding in this direction will put the university further out of step with the Common Core mandate of infusing more statistics content into high school mathematics. 

This extreme action on fourth-year math status appears to reflect a lack of awareness among some faculty members of the major changes taking place in math curricula at the postsecondary and high school levels, changes endorsed by all the major math organizations. As explained in this 2015 report by the Mathematical Association of America and four other leading math organizations, math courses are no longer viewed as existing along a singular pathway. The idea that only courses within the mathematical canon leading to calculus have merit is archaic. 

The faculty move also betrays a myopic understanding of math learning wedded to that narrow conception of math content. In fact, the work group that advised the committee included no experts in college preparatory math or statistics education. Perhaps that is why the recommendations ignore the importance to math learning of engaging students in relevant content and developing positive attitudes toward mathematics. These pedagogical strategies are especially important for attracting students who have traditionally been excluded from STEM endeavors. 

Statistics is increasingly common as a fourth-year math course in lieu of precalculus. In Los Angeles, it is the most common senior-year math course, according to researchers at UCLA. In addition to 26 percent of seniors taking a traditional statistics course (either AP Statistics or general statistics), another 10 percent took “alternative courses that have been offered more recently in the district, such as Transition to College Mathematics and Statistics or Introduction to Data Science,” the researchers reported.

Until the recent review by the UC Board of Admissions and Relations With Schools, such courses met the requirements for high school graduation and eligibility for state public university admissions—either as a third-year course in lieu of Algebra II (a path chosen by extremely few UC applicants) or as a fourth-year course—for many years. While, technically, only three years of high school math are required for university eligibility, the vast majority of UC applicants—93 percent in 2016—take four years. 

Under the new policy advanced by the UC faculty admissions committee—which determines the guidelines for the A–G courses required for eligibility for both of the state’s public universities—the courses apparently won’t be considered a math course at all. That, in turn, raises questions for the many districts, including Los Angeles, that use the A–G requirements for graduation. 

The bottom line is that districts are increasingly offering these courses because they are relevant and engaging for many students who otherwise would be turned off by mathematics. The work group couldn’t have considered those facts, because it appears they didn’t consult with even a single K–12 education leader or math education expert. 

They seem to have engaged in an exercise akin to textual originalism, which involved analyzing the meaning of two academic senate regulations (and then selectively applying them to data science courses), rather than consulting with experts in K–12 math education or studying empirical evidence on the outcomes of the courses. 

As such, their conclusions seem completely misguided.

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