Don’t Let Calculus Become a Replacement for the SAT

After years of debates over their validity, the SAT and ACT were removed quite abruptly last year from most colleges’ admissions requirements. Though their elimination — spurred by the cancellation of test administrations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — was temporary in many cases, it could become a permanent state of affairs for some institutions.

Caltech, for example, is using a two-year pause to study whether standardized test scores are a useful metric and should be reintroduced, and the ten-campus University of California system has decided to eliminate admissions tests entirely for at least five years.

Given the well-documented disparate impact of norm-referenced tests like the SAT, these changes are long overdue. But, as other colleges and universities ponder similar moves, it’s important that they don’t simply replace these problematic tests with other inequitable ways of admitting students.

As I’ve written before, high school calculus, especially AP Calculus, already plays a disproportionate role in access to competitive colleges. Almost no college or university in the country requires a calculus course for admission. The rare exceptions are science and engineering schools, where the majority of majors actually use calculus. Caltech, for example, seeks “mastery of calculus,” and Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommends “math through calculus.”

But despite not being an actual requirement for admission at most institutions, a course in calculus remains a perceived requirement for admission to highly selective colleges around the country. When students are advised to take the most advanced courses available to them, AP Calculus typically appears on their schedules, regardless of whether it prepares them to pursue their field of interest. In fact, research has shown that after arriving in college, only about 20 percent of students who took AP Calculus during high school actually go on to take a more advanced course in calculus, fulfilling the purpose of the AP course.

The vast majority of students who took AP Calculus during high school do one of four things once they get to college: repeat a calculus course, take a lower-level math course, take a course like statistics that is not dependent on calculus, or take no math at all. In fact, one of the top reasons students give for taking AP Calculus is that it will look good on their transcripts.

This is a problem for at least four reasons:

  • To reach AP Calculus by their senior year, students need to accelerate at some point through the five-course high school math sequence. Often, schools allow students to skip eighth-grade math in order to start Algebra 1 during middle school. This could weaken their preparation by omitting key material, while simultaneously placing students on different tracks, which contributes to inequitable opportunity in math.
  • With no policy requiring calculus, its actual weight in the admissions process is opaque: The mere perception that it is required could make it a de facto requirement, as students feel the need to take it because other students do.
  • Many students — especially those not pursuing fields like science and engineering — could benefit from taking another type of math course, such as statistics or data science. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice taking a relevant and rigorous course in order to get into college.
  • Nearly half of U.S. high schools enrolling almost one-fifth of students in the country do not offer calculus courses. If colleges unnecessarily require the course, or fail to address the misperception that it is required, students at these high schools will have little chance of attending competitive colleges, regardless of their talent or potential.

Still, selective universities have more applications than they have seats, so admissions offices understandably need to have some criteria for accepting or rejecting students. Fairly or unfairly, admissions tests have helped serve this purpose. In their absence, there is a real risk that admissions officers will feel pressure to put even more weight on calculus courses.

Math is too important to be used as an arbitrary barrier to college entry. Not being experts in math education, admissions professionals may not be aware of the harm such an approach could bring. Let’s make sure they get the message.

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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