Why Elite College Admissions May Play an Outsized Role in K-12 Math Programs

By Sarah Schwartz — September 07, 2022 7 min read
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In recent years, math educators and advocates have pushed to diversify high school course offerings, introducing new pathways that culminate in statistics or data analysis. But new research suggests that one course still reigns supreme when it comes to college admissions: calculus.

New surveys of college counselors working in competitive admissions find that the vast majority—93 percent—say calculus gives students an “edge” in the college application process. Almost 3 in 4 of those surveyed say that not taking the course narrows students’ options.

The results underscore the importance of college admissions practices—or even perceptions thereof—in shaping high school coursetaking. And they shed light on the anxieties that some parents and school system leaders feel about the introduction of nontraditional math pathways into high school classrooms.

The report, a joint effort from the math equity-focused nonprofit Just Equations and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, isn’t nationally representative: About 70 percent of the first survey’s 323 school-based counselor respondents work in private high schools. A second, similar survey was completed by 70 independent college counselors, whom some families hire to provide extra support and guidance for their children during the admissions process.

Most of these respondents are focused on getting students into selective colleges, the report’s authors note, so it’s likely that counselors working with students aiming for less-selective colleges or two-year institutions might have a different opinion. But even though the survey only represents a small slice of college-going experiences, the results have wide implications, said Pamela Burdman, the founder of Just Equations, and one of the authors on the report.

“These more elite or prestigious higher education institutions have a disproportionate impact on the overall admissions landscape,” she said.

The expectations these colleges and universities set for what courses students are expected to take can trickle down throughout the system as a whole, said Dave Kung, director of policy at the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center. (Kung also served as an advisor on the report.)

“The fact that calculus is seen as a golden ticket to better schools is deeply inequitable … If you look at U.S. high schools, only half of them even offer calculus,” Kung said.

Those numbers are lower in schools that serve majority Black and Latino students, he said, meaning that preferencing calculus-taking is to “set up a system where your ZIP code determines whether or not you can [be] a math major.”

Very few universities require high school students to have taken calculus in policy, said Kung. But even as some hyper-selective institutions—like Harvard University and Stanford—have recently stressed that calculus is not a requirement for acceptance, many counselors in the survey said that they believe it is still a covert expectation from admissions officers at these types of schools. They advise the students they work with to take the course, as they believe they won’t be as competitive without it.

“Whether or not they agree with the policies they see being important in higher education, they feel bound by them,” Burdman said, of high school admissions counselors.

The movement to expand high school math beyond calculus

For the past 30 years, calculus has been regarded as the terminus of advanced high school math.

In order to get to the course by senior year, students generally need to take their first high school math course—Algebra 1—in 8th grade, progressing then through geometry, Algebra 2, precalculus, and finally on to calculus.

But over the past decade, math professional organizations and many educators have pushed back against this march to calculus as the default pathway, and have begun to fashion alternate routes for advanced high school math. Critics of the status quo argue that it can push kids to accelerate before they’re ready—shortchanging their development of foundational math skills in middle school.

The fixed trajectory can also have the effect of trapping students into “higher” and “lower” tracks early on: If students don’t take Algebra 1 in middle school, it’s unlikely they’ll get to calculus by the end of high school. This tracking disproportionately disadvantages students of color and low-income students.

Finally, there’s the question of calculus’ intrinsic value. Does the course actually better prepare students for college-level work than, for example, a class in statistics or data analysis? The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Mathematical Association of America have both taken the position that calculus should not be the only gateway from high school to college math courses.

These critiques of the traditional calculus pathway have shaped proposed changes to the way math is taught and sequenced in K-12 schools—and unleashed a torrent of criticism.

A draft math framework in California, for example, proposes alternative high school math pathways, and versions of the document have suggested that all students take Algebra I in 9th grade, rather than accelerating some students before then, to create a more even playing field.

The proposal garnered swift pushback from parents of high-achieving students, who argued that it would make it harder for their children to reach calculus by senior year, the news site EdSource reported.

Universities ‘see calculus as pay-to-play’

College admissions counselors’ anxieties probably mirror these parents’ responses. But admissions officers at colleges and universities are less likely to say that calculus matters.

A separate survey by the same organizations earlier this year surveyed 137 public and private colleges. In the new report, researchers compared this prior data with counselors’ responses, and found that the two groups’ perceptions of calculus were not always aligned.

“I have been in meetings where you have [university] officials adamant that calculus is not necessary to be admitted to the system, and you have high school counselors and math teachers insisting that it is,” Burdman said.

The mismatch could reflect the general opacity of admissions requirements—and the belief that there is one set of “official” requirements, and then another, unspoken set of rules that can give students a leg up.

“I had one admissions officer at a highly selective college tell me they had only admitted one student in the past three years without calc[ulus] and advised my student (first gen, single parent, who had many other advanced courses, and was homecoming queen and the center of our student life) [to] apply elsewhere,” said one counselor quoted in the report.

“We are aware of schools that see calculus as pay-to-play, even if students’ intended major is philosophy,” said another.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, a professional organization, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some of the nuances in these numbers are hard to capture. For example, whether students need calculus to succeed in STEM or other math-heavy majors is a different question from whether calculus should be a prerequisite for any student admitted to a selective college, Burdman said.

“We are not suggesting that calculus is unimportant for students who know that they want to pursue a STEM field, particularly engineering, physics, etc.,” she said.

“We do think that college admissions offices need more information about math options,” Burdman continued. “They need to speak with their faculty to have a better understanding of what their faculty in different disciplines are expecting among their students in quantitative reasoning abilities.”

Selling colleges on alternative math pathways

Statistics, which has gained popularity in recent years as an alternative advanced math course, is received favorably by admissions officers at colleges, the report’s data show. But some high school counselors are wary of recommending it instead of calculus, with one saying, “Highly selective colleges think AP Calculus is harder than AP Statistics. There is a bias.”

These expectations about what counts as college-preparatory math can hamper efforts to expand math pathways in states, said Josh Recio, a course program specialist focusing on high school mathematics with the Dana Center.

Recio, who worked with Georgia to expand statistics, quantitative reasoning, and data science options, said that decisionmakers were hesitant to change anything about the sequence of high school math until they knew the president of the University of Georgia system was on board. “Then, it was OK,” Recio said.

“On the K-12 pathway side, it’s very much a look for permission first,” he said.

Overall, the report’s authors recommend that K-12 systems strengthen course options and college counseling programs in lower-resourced schools—and that colleges provide clearer and more consistent recommendations about what math courses are required for different majors.

It may be easier to persuade some colleges to make these shifts than others, said Kung. A small school that’s looking to attract more applicants has more incentive to make admissions policies transparent than a flagship state institution.

“The institutions with the most power here have the least pressure to change,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why Elite College Admissions May Play An Outsized Role in K-12 Math Programs


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