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Work to address inequitable math outcomes begins in the classroom, but it can’t end there. Given the prevalence of policies like tracking — which disproportionately place students of color into lower-level, often dead-end, math sequences — math equity includes examining how students are steered toward math classes in the first place.

Whether in K-12 schools, community colleges, or four-year universities, evidence increasingly has emerged to show that math misplacement is widespread:

  • Large numbers of students who took Algebra in eighth grade have often been required to repeat the course in high school, even though many were considered proficient on algebra tests, one California study found, noting that students of color were more likely to meet that fate. One possible explanation was that the majority of districts relied on parental requests, which could increase access to advanced math courses for more privileged students. As a result of these concerns, California legislators passed a law on math placement intended to address disparities as students transition from middle school to high school. …

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College admissions requirements send signals to high schools about what courses are valued. But when those requirements fail to change with the times, they can actually stifle innovation.

Take the teaching of data science in high school. The development of such courses has been stunted in virtually every state in the country, because they don’t clearly fall within the defined math requirements for admission to most public and private universities. One notable exception is California’s Introduction to Data Science course.

IDS, which I’ve written about here, here, here, and here, is a six-year-old high school course pioneered by faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles in partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District. Now offered at 17 districts in California, as well as schools in three other states, IDS offers juniors and seniors an opportunity to learn basic statistics and computer programming by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data sets from their own lives. …


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On the surface, mathematics appears to be a set of truths, and math education a way of transmitting those truths — in the same way the law seems to be a set of rules, with criminal justice a system for enforcing them.

However, just as the criminal justice system has been called “slavery by another name” for disproportionately imprisoning Black people, our system of math education also plays a role in injustice and inequity. If justice is an ideal that can be distorted and misapplied, so is mathematics.

The notion that mathematics practices and policies contribute to inequity is not new. Scholars such as Danny Martin have described the phenomenon, and I discuss it in several places, including here. But as our country grapples with dismantling an unjust policing system, the parallels are conspicuous. …


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What a difference a pandemic makes. Just last week, the University of California system broke with decades of tradition by deciding to permanently suspend the SAT and ACT tests as admissions requirements for the system’s nine undergraduate campuses.

Evidence of the high-stakes tests’ racially disparate impact has been clear for years, as has research showing that high school grades are the strongest predictor of students’ performance in college. Still, it’s hard to imagine the university moving so swiftly without the forced cancellation of SAT and ACT test administrations this spring. …


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As students around the country face unprecedented disruptions to their high school experiences, institutions of higher education are waiving once-rigid admissions requirements, such as test scores and grades in required courses. In some respects, colleges have little choice but to be flexible in the coronavirus’ wake: No SAT or ACT tests are being administered for the foreseeable future, and many schools are adopting pass/no pass policies. Clinging to standard requirements would not just disadvantage some students through no fault of their own, it would also imperil colleges’ efforts to fill their freshman classes.

But other policy responses that could also have profound and long-term effects on equitable college opportunity may be less visible. As they strive to respond in real time to an evolving situation, college officials also must be thoughtful and deliberate in setting and communicating policy changes. …


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Diversifying the pathways students take through high school and college mathematics has the potential to open avenues to college for more students. That’s why many of us support efforts to expand math pathways to teach rigorous content in ways that are not only interesting to far more students, but also more relevant for those students’ lives and aspirations.

To meet high school or college requirements, courses like Statistics or Data Science can offer rigorous quantitative reasoning content to students who are interested in fields like politics, law, marketing, or the media. In most cases, the primary educational purpose of advanced algebra courses is as a stepping stone to Calculus for students pursuing fields like Engineering and Physics. …


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The recent debate over California State University’s well-intended proposal to require an additional quantitative reasoning (QR) course for admission highlights the challenges of efforts to bolster mathematics preparation. And the CSU trustees’ recent decision to first conduct more extensive analyses bodes well for advancing equitable math opportunity.

For too long, math requirements have been used as a convenient filter to determine access to this school or admission to that program. Using academic coursework as an entry requirement sounds legitimate on its face. To avoid exacerbating inequities, however, such requirements must meet at least two conditions: (1) the topic is necessary for success in the program; and (2) the required courses are available to all students seeking to pursue higher education. …


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Why does high school calculus, generally AP Calculus, play such an outsize role in the access to competitive colleges? And should it?

Clearly the reason for the dominance of Calculus is not that all students who take AP Calculus in high school go on to major in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields that actually require them to know calculus. Nationally, only 20 percent of university students earn undergraduate STEM degrees.

Nor is it the case that students taking AP Calculus in high school necessarily go on to take a higher-level math course in college, the outcome that AP courses were designed to facilitate. As David Bressoud has shown (see p. 5), fewer than 20 percent of students taking AP Calculus do so. In fact, a large majority of students taking Calculus in college are taking it for the second time, and even so, don’t necessarily earn an A or B. …


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The purpose of math is not to make students miserable. It is not to instill fear in them. And it is definitely not to create a pecking order among students. The purpose of math education is to help students “expand professional opportunity; understand and critique the world; and experience joy, wonder, and beauty,” to quote the National Council of Teacher of Mathematics.

Just Equations was founded to ensure that mathematics education fulfills this purpose, rather than serving as a gatekeeper to stop students — particularly students of color and low-income students — in their educational tracks.

Recently we invited educators, advocates, and researchers to Berkeley to continue this work at our annual convening, The Mathematics of Opportunity: Designing for Equity.


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College admissions requirements have a complex relationship with high school opportunity: On the one hand, colleges’ course-taking requirements can be a lever for improving the availability of rigorous high school courses. Since high school offerings tend to migrate over time in the direction of college admissions requirements, those requirements can be a way to raise the bar for all students.

On the other hand, because that voluntary migration is — by definition — uneven, raising admissions requirements risks magnifying existing racial and socioeconomic inequities. …

About

Pamela Burdman

is an expert on college access, readiness, and success and founder of Just Equations — a project to re-conceptualize the role of mathematics in education equity

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