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Why Calculus Remains a Math Flash Point

by Staff

Calculus has long been one of the most-debated flash points in high school math.

The course is commonly seen as the pinnacle of the high school progression, a clear signal to college admissions counselors that graduates are ready for postsecondary study. But many in the K-12 field question whether it’s really the best mathematical preparation for all students.

And the course is plagued by inequities—data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights has shown that Black and Latino students have less access to calculus in their schools than their white and Asian peers. Some high schools don’t even offer the class.

How to design calculus courses, and who exactly should take them, was the focus of a panel on the subject at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Meeting here last week.

“The math education community has been thinking and learning about the teaching of calculus for many decades,” said Ralph Pantozzi, a math teacher at Kent Place School in Millington, N.J. “Calculus for whom, and when? What should a calculus course look like and feel like?”

Pantozzi cited NCTM’s most recent position statement on the subject, released in June 2022. It says that calculus can provide important foundations for future studies, “particularly in mathematically intensive fields.”

But it also argues that calculus “should not be the singular end goal of the PK–12 mathematics curriculum at the expense of providing a broad spectrum of mathematical preparation.”

Some experts in the math education field have suggested that high schools offer alternative data science pathways, which could provide students with preparation in statistical analysis that could support them in a wide range of college majors and career fields.

A few states, including Ohio, Oregon, and Utah, have created high school math pathways that encourage students to take different advanced math courses, based on their career interests.

Still, these changes tend to be controversial, given the important role calculus plays in the college admissions process, and the urging from some in postsecondary math education that it is a necessary foundation for incoming college students who are interested in majoring in a STEM field.

Read on for three takeaways about the purposes calculus serves—and doesn’t serve—from the panelists’ conversation.

Calculus is still an important admissions factor for many colleges

Just Equations, a nonprofit that advocates for greater educational equity in math, surveyed college admissions counselors and high school counselors in 2021 and 2022. Of the 1,250 selective four-year colleges and universities Just Equations contacted, 137 responded: 58 percent private institutions and 42 percent public.

“What we learned is that they do indeed look at calculus as the gold standard in this business,” said Melodie Baker, the national policy director at Just Equations.

Eighty percent of admissions officers said that colleges place a priority on calculus, and 53 percent said that having taken calculus gives students an edge in the admissions process.

“While this is often practiced, it’s not an actual policy,” said Baker. Even though college admissions officers hold these beliefs, many colleges don’t explicitly state these preferences in their admissions materials or on their websites, she said.

This opacity in the process can disadvantage lower-income or first generation students, Baker said. “Students who come from wealthy backgrounds are more likely to know the role that calculus plays in college admissions,” she said.

In a separate 2023 survey of high school and college students, mostly in California, Just Equations found that 60 percent of students whose parents went to college agreed with the statement, “Students who take calculus are more likely to be admitted to elite or highly selective colleges.” Only 40 percent of students whose parents had not attended college said the same.

Not all students have access to the course

“What a lot of college admissions counselors do not know is that calculus is truly an issue with access,” said Baker. “Only 50 percent of the high schools in the country even offer calculus. And the ones that do have lower enrollment of Black and Latinx students.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of civil rights show that highly segregated schools with majority Black or Latino enrollment are much less likely to offer calculus—only 38 percent of these schools offer the course.

Colleges champion calculus, but it’s unclear whether it’s necessary for all students

Even in states that have created alternative high school pathways, state guidance to students still recommends that those interested in STEM fields take calculus. But what about students who are interested in other disciplines? Do they need the subject too?

Joan Zoellner, the lead of the Launch Years Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center, shared data from the Research, Planning & Professional Development Group for California Community Colleges examining the performance of community college students in their first postsecondary math course.

All of these students were pursuing a business administration degree, and needed to pass a business calculus course to graduate.

Students who had previously taken a high school calculus course did well in business calculus—71 percent of them who took business calculus in their first year passed the class.

But many students who hadn’t taken calculus in high school succeeded in business calculus, too. Sixty-eight percent of students who had taken high school statistics and enrolled directly in college business calculus passed in their first year, as did 63 percent of students who had ended high school with precalculus.

“We don’t really know what the make or break skills, or habits of mind, are for [college] calculus,” said Zoellner.

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