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In California, a Math Problem: Does Data Science = Algebra II?

by Staff

The push for data science is also complicated by the wide racial disparities in advanced math, especially in calculus, which is a prerequisite for most science and math majors. In 2019, 46 percent of Asian high school graduates nationally had completed calculus, compared with 18 percent of white students, 9 percent of Hispanic students and 6 percent of Black students, according to a 2022 study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Many educators are justifiably concerned that the calculus pathway institutionalizes racial inequities by decreasing the number of Black and Latino students in college,’’ Robert Gould, the author of a high school data science course, wrote in a 2021 article. Data science courses, he suggested, connect students’ everyday lives to their academic careers, “which one hopes will lead to a more diverse university enrollment.’’

But in a May 2022 letter to the U.C. faculty senate committee, eight Black faculty members argued that data science courses “harm students from such groups by steering them away from being prepared for STEM majors.”

Race isn’t the only issue. Hundreds of faculty members from the state’s public and private universities have signed an open letter expressing concern that substituting data science for Algebra II would lower academic standards. Offering a way around Algebra II, they said, deprives students of their best chance to absorb the mathematical principles increasingly central to many fields, including economics, biology and political science.

There was also dissent from the California State University System. Its academic senate stated in January that the shift “threatens to increase the number of students entering the CSU who are identified as needing extra support to succeed.”

But supporters have argued that data science is important for navigating an increasingly number-centric society and would help more students go to, and graduate from, college. Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford who has been a vocal proponent of data science, argued in an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times that Algebra II is largely irrelevant for many students: “When was the last time you divided a polynomial?”

Some faculty members said that, at the very least, students and parents should understand that high school data science won’t even qualify a student to take data science in college — because undergraduate data science classes require calculus.

“The messaging is very confusing,” Brian Conrad, a Stanford professor and director of undergraduate studies in math, said. “Who would think that taking a course in high school chemistry would not be useful for chemistry in college?”

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