Mathematics

AP Precalculus: What Schools Need to Know About the New Course

By Ileana Najarro — May 31, 2023 5 min read
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Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that tests are mandated in most Advanced Placement courses.

When students set to take Precalculus Honors return to school this fall in the Seminole County school district, they will all be Advanced Placement students.

That’s because the Florida district chose to adopt the new College Board AP Precalculus course launching next school year. The first exams, offering students a chance at completing college credits in high school, are scheduled for May 2024.

For years, the Seminole County district has offered its high schoolers Precalculus Honors. But the College Board, the organization that runs the AP program, has told school and district leaders that any student ready to take precalculus—typically following Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II or three integrated math courses—is ready for its new AP course.

“We figured, why not give the opportunity for all students to try to get this college credit and the additional AP resources at least for this first year,” said Tiffany Spradling, K-12 math and science coordinator for the district.

Schools across the country are preparing this summer for the new course. While College Board spokespeople said they won’t have figures on how many will sign up until this fall, the organization hopes its new offering will give more students—particularly students of color—more opportunities for advanced math coursework to be better prepared for college.

‘Precalculus is precalculus’

Math pathways from middle school through high school vary across schools, as does access to advanced courses, including science, technology, and engineering.

For instance, 2 in 5 Black and Latino students surveyed for a report last year say they want to go to college and have a passion for STEM, but only about 3 percent of these students are enrolled in AP STEM courses. That’s according to a joint report from the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for students from low-income families and students of color, and the nonprofit Equal Opportunity Schools.

According to the College Board, 58,000 U.S. students identifying as underrepresented minorities—including Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students—took AP Calculus AB in 2022, representing 23 percent of AP Calculus AB AP examinees in the U.S. And 43,000 such students took AP Statistics, representing 21 percent of AP Stats examinees. (Tests are mandated in most AP courses.)

That same year, 402,498 traditionally underrepresented students took at least one AP exam in any subject across the country—1,166,311 students total took at least one AP exam in any subject.

In some cases, schools don’t offer math courses after geometry or Algebra II except for calculus, and AP Calculus or AP Statistics, and for some students, the jump from Algebra II to AP Calculus might have been too big, said Edward Biedermann, executive director of AP Outreach for the College Board. In other cases, schools might have already been offering a precalculus or Precalculus Honors course with no opportunity for students to get college credit.

That meant students, in particular students of color, not being tracked into existing AP courses or taking precalculus their senior year have been missing out on coursework that better prepares them for college, and on credits that could save them time and money.

The new course addresses these circumstances, Biedermann said.

And with precalculus, as a discipline, already categorized by colleges, high schools, and mathematics organizations as advanced math, the new AP course is not a more advanced version of the precalculus courses already being offered in high schools nationwide.

“Precalculus is precalculus,” Biedermann said. “So there’s no reason for schools to think about having to offer multiple leveled sections of precalculus.”

That’s the approach the Seminole County district is taking. Though the decision to replace precalculus honors across all high schools in the district was met with some initial hesitancy.

Some teachers worried about students who otherwise wouldn’t take AP math courses suddenly being enrolled in one, Spradling with the district said.

“Originally, they wanted levels, they wanted some options and we kind of said that doesn’t really match with the message we’re being sent,” Spradling said. “And why would we track some kids into honors versus AP? Let’s give them all the opportunity for AP.”

Teachers also expressed concerns over adding an accountability measure to precalculus as the AP course mandates a high-stakes test in the spring.

The district has reviewed questions, comments, and concerns from educators, and continues with outreach and professional development opportunities this summer.

How to make implementation work

That idea of a new course offering students a chance at AP math, or a more accessible foray into AP math on their way to AP calculus or statistics, has some inherent merit, Allison Rose Socol, vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research at The Education Trust.

“But there’s so much about the way that this gets implemented, including support for students, training and professional development for educators, and school and district leaders really investigating and changing policies about how students are identified for these courses that will make or break the impact of this kind of initiative,” Socol said.

In general, the way that students get placed into AP courses has a lot to do with their teachers and their school counselors, so sometimes implicit and even explicit biases can prevent students of color from enrolling in advanced coursework, even when test scores demonstrate that they are ready, Socol said. Setting up enrollment policies that prevent biases from seeping in would be necessary for equity.

And even after schools encourage more students of color to enroll in these courses, there needs to be support in place for students’ success. That can include targeted tutoring but also creating a classroom culture where students of color feel welcomed, seen, and supported, Socol added.

And using data to assess whether intended equity outcomes come to fruition, as might be the case if growing numbers of students of color enrolled in AP math courses through AP Precalculus, will be critical.

At the Florida district, teachers will have opportunities this summer and this school year to collaborate across schools as they roll out the course, and district leaders have already begun parental outreach to explain what the course has to offer, Spradling said.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2023 edition of Education Week as AP Precalculus: What Schools Need to Know About the New Course

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