Some experts in mathematics education and college admissions have argued that the current math requirements for college admissions are outdated, unfair and irrelevant. They claim that the emphasis on calculus as the pinnacle of high school math is not aligned with the needs of most college majors and careers, and that it creates a barrier for many students, especially those from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.

The Rise of Calculus in High School

According to David Bressoud, a mathematics professor at Macalester College and former president of the Mathematical Association of America, the number of students taking calculus in high school jumped from 30,000 in 1980 to over 800,000 today. He attributes this to changes in college admissions standards at highly selective colleges. “You are not going to get into Duke if you haven’t taken calculus, even if you plan to major in French literature,” he said.

Why Some Experts Want to Change Math Requirements for College Admissions
Why Some Experts Want to Change Math Requirements for College Admissions

He notes that more than half of students who take calculus in high school come from families with a household income above $100,000 a year, only 15 percent of middle-income students and 7 percent of those in the poorest 25 percent of families take the course. This reflects the unequal access to advanced math courses and qualified teachers across different schools and districts.

The Relevance of Calculus for College and Career

However, Bressoud and other experts question the relevance of calculus for most college majors and careers. They point out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “jobs that require data literacy and statistics are among the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the country”. Jo Boaler, a professor of Math Education at Stanford, quoted a study that found only 12% of professionals use algebra, trigonometry or calculus regularly and only 2% use calculus.

Indeed, there is actually a surplus of STEM graduates in the US. Hal Salzman, a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University, writing in a BLS publication notes that “for every two students graduating with a U.S. STEM degree, only one is employed in STEM and that 32 percent of computer science graduates not employed in information technology attributed their situation to a lack of available jobs”. He also found that the US Census found that 74% of those who graduated with a STEM degree are not working in a STEM profession.

The Alternatives to Calculus

Bressoud and Boaler advocate for alternatives to the traditional math curriculum that focus on developing conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills and data literacy. They suggest that courses such as statistics, data science, modeling and discrete mathematics are more relevant and engaging for students who are interested in various fields such as social sciences, humanities, arts, health and business.

Boaler has been a major force in changing math requirements for graduation and college admissions in California. She has called swaths of algebra II as irrelevant as “sock darning and shorthand”. She has also helped design a new course called Mathematics for a Quantitative World, which covers topics such as cryptography, coding, social networks and artificial intelligence. The course has been approved by the University of California system as fulfilling the math requirement for admission.

The Implications for College Admissions

The changes in math requirements for college admissions have implications for both students and colleges. For students, they may provide more flexibility and choice in their high school math courses, as well as more opportunities to explore their interests and passions. For colleges, they may require more nuanced evaluations of applicants’ math skills and potential, as well as more alignment with their academic programs and missions.

However, some challenges remain. For instance, how will colleges compare students who have taken different math courses? How will they ensure that students are prepared for college-level math courses? How will they communicate their expectations and preferences to prospective applicants? How will they balance the need for diversity and equity with the need for excellence and rigor?

These are some of the questions that colleges and experts will have to grapple with as they rethink the role of math in college admissions.


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