The dust hasn’t even settled from the 2022 college admissions season, and you can already feel the anxiety rising as students and schools look forward. At highly selective colleges–the target for many independent school families–the numbers of applications keep rising and admission rates continue to drop. I’d imagine those numbers are top of mind as tenth and eleventh graders finish their course selection process this spring.
With many colleges and universities maintaining their test-optional admissions, course selection and transcripts take on added weight. As a result, Calculus has become an unofficial prerequisite, offering assurance that students are taking the most challenging courses their school offers.
Unsurprisingly, enrollment in Calculus courses has jumped over the past 30 years. Between 1997 and 2009 (the last year the U.S. Department of Education completed the High School Transcript Study), Calculus enrollment more than doubled from 7% in 1997 to 16% in 2009.
Access to Calculus, however, is not always a reflection of students’ ability to complete higher-level math courses. Often, it’s a reflection of the middle school students attended. That’s because in order to take Calculus in the senior year, students need to have completed Algebra I before starting high school. That’s fairly standard in independent schools, but just 24% of public school students take Algebra I in eighth grade.
As a result, independent high school math placement in ninth grade often aligns with whether or not a student attended an independent K-8, and because white students are dramatically over-represented in independent schools, white students are typically over-represented first in ninth-grade Geometry and, eventually, in twelfth grade Calculus.
Math achievement in high school shouldn’t be determined by the education a student has access to in middle school–and it doesn’t have to be.
Imagine a ninth grade curriculum that covers the material of Algebra I, well-scaffolded by explicit instruction in executive functioning skills and growth mindsets, followed by a summer program that guides students through Geometry coursework. Those students return to school in the fall of tenth grade, ready for Algebra II and on track for Calculus in their senior year.
We’re proud that our summer math courses are used by schools to help build equity in their academic programs. Frequently, schools subsidize or cover the cost of the course as part of their tuition assistance package. Since first offering the course, Geometry has consistently been our top-enrolled summer course. When we last surveyed our summer math students, 100% of respondents told us that their One Schoolhouse summer course prepared them for the next academic year.
Will Calculus always serve as a gatekeeper to college admissions? That’s a question math teachers, college admissions officers, and researchers are trying to answer. A 2021 report sponsored by Just Equations and NACAC, A New Calculus for College Admissions: How Policy, Practice, and Perceptions of High School Math Education Limit Equitable Access to College offers research and proposals to widen the pipeline to advanced mathematics, and to encourage college admissions offices to rethink their assumptions about high school math.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)