Mathematics

A New AP Precalculus Course Aims to Diversify the Math Pipeline

By Ileana Najarro — May 19, 2022 3 min read
Images of math equations.
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If students aren’t adequately prepared for college-level math courses in high school, it can make completing a college degree more difficult, with some students needing to spend time and money on remedial classes.

The College Board offers Advanced Placement calculus and statistics courses that can jumpstart students’ college careers with credits and provide better preparation for college-level courses, but not all high schools offer them and students of color in particular often face barriers accessing them in schools that do.

Currently, only about 5 percent of AP calculus and AP statistics students are Black, and 17 percent are Latino, according to the College Board. And more than half of students who take calculus in high school come from families with a household income above $100,000 a year, according to a 2018 study.

In an effort to better prepare all students for college-level math courses, the College Board will offer a new AP Precalculus course beginning in fall 2023. It will cover a “broad spectrum of function types that are foundational for careers in mathematics, physics, biology, health science, social science, and data science,” according to the course framework.

“We think it’s important that all students have an incentive to stay invested and interested in math throughout their high school career and make a successful transition to college or a promising career,” said Trevor Packer, the senior vice president of AP and Instruction for the College Board.

Big disparities in opportunities for access to high-level math courses

There is currently a variety of ways in which schools organize math courses. Some offer Algebra 1 in 8th grade, others in 9th grade, and others offer Algebra 2 as the highest level, said Adrian Mims Sr., the founder and chief executive of the Calculus Project, a program geared toward increasing the number of students of color and students from low-income families completing AP calculus.

Because of this variety, it can be difficult for some schools to properly prepare and support students’ transition into a calculus course their senior year of high school given the limited range of math courses they offer. AP Precalculus can serve as a senior year capstone course that can better prepare students to take calculus in college, avoid remedial classes, and in some cases even offer course credit, said Mims, who served on the advisory committee for creating the new AP course.

So while some students may take AP Precalculus their junior year as a precursor to AP calculus, others can take the new course their senior year more generally as a precursor to college-level math.

And if implemented correctly, the new AP course can help address the disparities of representation in advanced math courses, Mims said. He noted that schools that serve students of color and students from low-income families often don’t offer AP calculus courses and so AP Precalculus could fit into schools’ existing catalog of courses as an alternative high-level option.

But that also means schools need to ensure these students are able to enroll in AP Precalculus, and not be tracked out of it by rigid recommendation processes that often exclude students from advanced classes. For example, a student getting a B-minus in a precalculus honors course might not qualify for AP calculus in some schools.

Students of color and students from low-income families are also less likely to begin high school on an accelerated math pathway due to teacher perceptions of their abilities, Mims added.

“This is an opportunity to better prepare diverse groups of students that have historically been underrepresented to give them this access, if they choose to do that,” Mims said. “However, if administrators, heads of math departments or whatever, if they incorporate this and enhance the tracking, and use it as a gatekeeper course then it’s not going to solve the problem.”

Other experts point to the need for schools to create a sense of belonging for Black and Latino students, in particular, in advanced math courses in tandem with eliminating systemic barriers such as strict course prerequisites.

The new AP course comes with professional development for teachers as well as classroom support and resources for both students and teachers, the College Board said. Teachers interested in leading AP Precalculus can enroll in an AP Summer Institute.

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