October 2022

Calculus Is Seen as a Proxy for High-Achieving Students. That’s a Problem.

Calculus Is Seen as a Proxy for High-Achieving Students. That’s a Problem.

In this piece for Chalkbeat, Just Equations National Policy Director Melodie Baker shares the story of her son’s college admissions process, during which he was grilled about his decision to take AP Statistics rather than AP Calculus his senior year. The story highlights findings from our report Calculating the Odds about covert calculus expectations in admissions and how they shape the math education landscape at large.

Like most teenagers, my son is stubborn. When it came to picking his senior year math course, he was determined to go his own way. Despite knowing his college preparatory high school expected students to take the most “rigorous” courses — code for AP Calculus — he chose AP Statistics instead.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he said, sharing his schedule with me and simultaneously making the case that statistics was a better fit for his intended major: forensics. 

In selecting a math course that matched his interests, however, he was unwittingly pushing up against decades of tradition designating calculus as a proxy for high achievement. Taking calculus in high school is not always tied to preparing students for their intended major, nor is it necessarily predictive of a student’s math success in college. Taking calculus is often about getting into college. But admissions offices have the power to let students, not outdated concepts of mathematical rigor, drive their futures.

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