Promises and Pitfalls of Diverse Math Pathways: Examining Equity in Students’ Course Choices

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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. Yet they can turn off large numbers of students, arbitrarily shutting doors to educational opportunity, particularly for marginalized students.

The new pathways are promising, but their ultimate success in expanding opportunity requires that they not be used, intentionally or unintentionally, to perpetuate patterns of inequity. They must be rigorous, and they must not divert students of color out of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Go Figure, the new report I co-authored with Rogéair D. Purnell explores this topic by inquiring into how college students choose their math pathways.

The study underscores the promises and pitfalls of efforts to diversify mathematics pathways. My organization, Just Equations, as well as others including the Charles A. Dana Center, the California Acceleration Project, Carnegie Math Pathways and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have promoted the development of diversified pathways in math. These pathways promise to expand college opportunity by ensuring that students’ math requirements are aligned with their aspirations so that irrelevant math requirements don’t arbitrarily end students’ educational pursuits.

However, it is ultimately not enough merely to create additional options: it is incumbent on educational systems to support students in achieving their aspirations by ensuring equitable access to those pathways.

This brings us to the pitfall of choice. Simply providing options does not ensure equitable access, especially if not all students are equipped and supported to make optimal decisions — and given the prevalence of math anxiety in this country, many students are not.

Just look at the number of community colleges in California that continue to offer remedial courses, even though they are no longer required to do so. In fact a new law mandates that students not be placed into remedial courses unless colleges can show that doing so increases their likelihood of succeeding in college. (The open secret is that, according to most research on the topic, that is almost never the case.)

Nevertheless, some colleges still have more than 30 percent of their math offerings at the remedial level, according to a 2019 report published by the Campaign for College Opportunity and the California Acceleration Project. And, with students voluntarily signing up for those courses in many cases, colleges can claim that students are effectively “voting with their feet.”

This ignores the way institutional structures (in this case, course offerings) may combine with self-perceptions to steer students’ choices. Those who have had discouraging experiences in mathematics and were led to believe they are not “math people” may tend to shy away from algebra-intensive math courses, even if they could have succeeded in them. If not carefully implemented, new mathematics pathways could become another such institutional structure, perpetuating patterns of tracking students, especially students of color, out of STEM fields.

For example, research by my colleagues at the University of Southern California underscores these concerns. One study found that when choosing a level of placement test, students of color tended to take a lower-level test than their high school records would require. Similarly, another found that “self-placement” strategies primarily benefited male, white, and Asian students, with African American and Latinx students as well as women of all races more likely to under-place themselves.

All of this points to the need to find ways of ensuring students have authentic agency in choosing their mathematics pathways. With Go Figure, we are embarking on a series of studies intended to better understand how colleges can do so. Not only should students not be directed to non-STEM courses purely based on assumptions about them. They also should be actively supported in making optimal choices in terms of math level as well as pathway.

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