COMMENTARY: California students need more high-quality advanced math options

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

A group of high school students work together to solve an algebra problem during their precalculus class.

The recent debate over California’s proposed math framework is missing the forest for the trees. In its myopic focus on which advanced math courses best prepare high school students for their futures, it glosses over a glaring fact: More than half of California seniors take no advanced math course at all. In fact, California requires students to take only two years of math, through Algebra 1.

As recently as 2018, nearly 40% of schools in the state had no seniors at all enrolled in advanced math, according to a 2019 report. More than 200,000 students left high school without the benefit of any advanced math. These students were more likely to be Black, Latino and low income than students taking advanced math.

Against this backdrop, California educators can ill afford to disagree over the value of a more traditional precalculus or calculus course versus a rigorous course in statistics, data science or mathematical modeling. Both are valuable — the former as preparation for the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, with the others aligning well with an interest in fields such as psychology, law or political science. Rather than prejudge students’ choices — or preclude them from making choices — educators should focus on making multiple rigorous options available.

To be sure, majors and careers should be accessible to all students, and that has traditionally not been the case. Special attention must be placed on expanding STEM preparation for groups that have historically been excluded — particularly students who are Black, Latino, and/or experiencing poverty — so that students can authentically opt in.

But not all students want to enter STEM fields. Nor do these professions have room for every student. Ensuring that all students develop mathematical maturity requires making more than one type of math available in high school, as advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others — not requiring each student to prepare for STEM entry, regardless of their interest.

Will California’s math framework solve all of these problems? No. But it can help advance a two-fold agenda: improving math preparation for STEM fields, particularly for historically excluded students, and ensuring that students focused on other pursuits also have opportunities to deepen their mathematical skills in relevant and engaging ways.

Efforts to promote advanced math opportunities have begun. The state and private foundations have supported several new courses designed to improve math learning and college readiness among California graduates. These range from teaching the fundamentals of data science and discrete math to strengthening understanding of traditional algebra-intensive math.

Such courses aim to serve students who historically didn’t continue in mathematics through new content and professional development. And though data science and statistics are not recommended for students committed to a STEM path, preliminary evidence points to their potential to reengage students who had previously ruled one out.

California university policies have reinforced such changes. Some individual courses, such as this and this in the Los Angeles district, have been accepted for admission to the University of California and California State University since at least 2015 and 2017. In 2020, the UC’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools clarified its definition of courses that qualify as “advanced math” options for high school juniors and seniors.

Faculty as well as administrators at CSU, which uses the same A-G course requirements as UC, have also endorsed the importance of honing students’ quantitative reasoning skills throughout high school, whether through traditional content or more innovative courses (and their proposal to require a fourth year of such courses is undergoing research).

Both universities require students to enter with at least three years of mathematics but recommend four years. Still, college admissions policy is not the best strategy for upgrading students’ high school math preparation, especially when the state only requires two years of high school math, less than 40-some other states. Some California districts have raised the bar to three or four years, but that exacerbates gaps across schools.

Shouldn’t California catch up to the 21st century and equalize opportunity within the state by requiring at least three years of math preparation for students to complete high school?

Of course, requiring courses is not enough, if access remains inequitable. The California Mathematics Placement Act of 2015 attempted to ensure objective placement measures in the transition from middle to high school. Given the importance of equitable access to advanced math courses generally and STEM-oriented math, research is needed into its implementation and outcomes.

University and K-12 educators undoubtedly share the vision for experiences that nurture students’ quantitative skills and prepare them for a rich future, in STEM as well as other fields. To achieve that vision, there is much work ahead — and one element must be ensuring the availability of multiple high-quality advanced options, while doubling down on equitable access to each.


Pamela Burdman is executive director of Just Equations, a nonprofit that promotes policies that prepare students with quantitative skills to succeed in college.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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