Recent debates about high school math courses have highlighted starkly different opinions about these courses’ role in preparing students for college. Ultimately, such debates should be resolved not by rhetoric but by empirical evidence. Two new reports from California think tanks shed important light on the topic.
Both reports—Twelfth Grade Math and College Access by Los Angeles Education Research Institute (LAERI) and Innovating High School Math Through K–12 and Higher Education Partnerships by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) —were published earlier this year.
The LAERI report, which focuses on students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, found that taking math in 12th grade increases students’ college eligibility, enrollment, and persistence, especially for four-year colleges, as prior research has suggested. Yet both reports show that about a quarter of California students do not take math in their senior year.
Controversies over proposals for high school math reform have centered on which courses students take in their junior and senior year, rather than whether they are taking any math at all. This oversight is consequential, because the state of California requires only two years of math for high school graduation, putting it at the bottom nationally. A majority of the state’s districts require an additional year or two of math. This translates into disparate access to advanced math across the state—and creates an uneven playing field for college opportunity.
Taken together, the reports support the argument that it is more important to ensure that students take four years of math than to obsess over which courses they take. Obviously, all courses should be rigorous and promote higher-order thinking. Here are some thoughts on what that might look like.
Both reports conclude that taking nontraditional math courses, such as statistics and data science, benefits students. PACE found that enrolling in such courses increases students’ likelihood of going to college, by ensuring that they take four years of math. According to the LAERI report, students taking statistics instead of precalculus appear to do better in terms of enrollment in four-year universities as well as in persistence to the second year. However, because of possible confounding factors, more research would be necessary to confirm this pattern.
The LAERI report also found no difference in college enrollment between students choosing to take precalculus in their senior year and those choosing another course, such as Introduction to Data Science (IDS) or Transition to College Math and Statistics, both of which have been offered in Los Angeles for several years.
Prior research suggests that these courses are successful for the simple reason that students find them engaging. In I Love Math Only if It’s Coding, Erica Heinzman of University of California San Diego finds that IDS students emerge feeling “confident, empowered, and part of a vibrant community,” in sharp contrast to how they felt in prior math courses. In another study, by the Education Insights Center, teachers reported that such courses strengthened students’ math identities. “A lot of them said that they never knew math could be this interesting or they never thought of themselves as a math person,” noted one teacher.
What the research doesn't reveal is the effectiveness of these courses as alternatives to Algebra II. Research looking at students who take an alternative course to Algebra II and their college outcomes would provide important guidance for the field about this, as numerous states are implementing or considering “Algebra II–equivalent” courses. While Algebra II remains a prerequisite for STEM pursuits, the research on student outcomes strongly suggests that, as a course for all students, the standard Algebra II course requires redesign.
The question about Algebra II, however, should not detract from ensuring that students take more years of mathematics. Expanding the range of available courses is a key strategy for doing so. While calculus and the courses leading to it remain important, especially for students pursuing STEM fields, they should not be the only options for advanced math.
As the LAERI report concludes, “Because we find suggestive evidence that statistics and traditional math courses have similar advantages in terms of expanding enrollment and persistence in four-year colleges, offering a variety of courses might help encourage more students to continue with math in 12th grade.”
More research is needed to better understand the benefits and limitations of new innovative course options. But no further study is necessary to affirm that, regardless of career aspirations, anyone living in the 21st century stands to benefit from increased statistical and data literacy.
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