A Rush to Calculus?

By Sean Cavanagh — April 23, 2009 3 min read
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For many high school students who show talent in math, or at least a moderate degree of skill in that subject, their choice of a senior-year math course may not amount to much of a choice at all. They’re expected to take calculus, which they’re told will help them get into college, and succeed once they arrive there.

Joseph G. Rosenstein, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers University, questions the logic of asking students to take that class in high school. He speculated that many of the students who take calculus in high school and struggle through it were losing interest in math upon arriving in college. A few years ago, he decided to probe the high school and college transcripts of students at his university, and what he found confirmed his doubts.

Rosenstein argues that the “acceleration” of students through high school math is not helping students, and in fact may be hurting them. This acceleration begins with the push to have students take 8th grade algebra and continues through senior-year calculus, he says.

In 2004, after examining the transcripts of 400 randomly chosen Rutgers students, he found that only a small percentage of those who had taken calculus in 12th grade, about 6 percent, continued on an “accelerated” pace through math in college—which he defined as taking Calculus 2 and Calculus 3 during their freshman year on campus.

The professor, who has written a book about discrete math and worked on professional- development programs for K-12 teachers, outlined his findings at the annual conference of the National Conference of Teachers of Mathematics, which is meeting in Washington this week. He titled his talk, “A Rush to Calculus.”

Rosenstein found that students who took the AP test in that subject fared better in Rutgers math courses than those who simply took the AP course. Those findings echo some previous research on the benefits of students committing to take the AP exam, he said.

The Rutgers scholar was quick to acknowledge to the audience that his research wasn’t scientifically rigorous. But his message seemed to resonate deeply among the teachers and other mathematically minded attendees who packed into a conference room for his presentation.

Many students take calculus in high school because they believe it will satisfy college expectations, Rosenstein said. They also do because everyone else is doing it, or because their parents urge them to take it.

“The calculus fever is very strong,” Rosenstein told the audience. “The question is, is that better, and does the acceleration strategy work?”

Rosenstein suggested that high school officials try to require that students receive a relatively strong grade, such as a B, before they’re allowed to move on to the next-toughest class. Of course, imposing those prerequisites is not easy. One teacher in the audience told him that when she and her colleagues recommend that a struggling student not move on to a certain advanced math topic, parents overrule them.

Students might also enroll in calculus because their schools offer few other senior-year options if they’ve already completed Algebra 2. Some researchers and scholars are experimenting with alternative senior-year courses in discrete math, applied math, and other topics, which they say can keep students on pace for college-level material, without delving too much into calculus. I wrote about those alternatives last year.

Of course, those courses can present challenges, too. Schools may not have enough teachers to lead alternative senior-year classes. They also may worry that those course offerings will morph into unchallenging classes.

How can a teacher or school official know when a student is ready for calculus? And is there any harm in waiting until college to take that class?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.