Why Do Underrepresented Students Struggle to Get the Math They Need for...

College Admissions

Why Do Underrepresented Students Struggle to Get the Math They Need for College?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Jun 22, 2023

Why Do Underrepresented Students Struggle to Get the Math They Need for College?

Students hear a lot of advice about the importance of what they do in high school, but they aren’t all hearing the same guidance.

At least, that’s according to a new report.

Students who don’t know that colleges prioritize calculus find themselves at a disadvantage in college admissions, according to “Integral Voices: Examining Math Experiences of Underrepresented Students,” a recent report from Just Equations, a California-based policy institute focused on making math more equitable.

When researchers asked 290 college students about what advice they’d been given in high school, the researchers found that it was stratified by race. Asian Americans were told to take calculus the most (61 percent), the report says. In contrast, Black students were told to take it the least (41 percent), with white (50 percent) and Hispanic (51 percent) students being told more often to take calculus.

The latest report is unique, according to one of its authors, in that students played a big part in producing it. Just Equations worked with Southern California College Access Network, a network of nonprofit organizations that tries to enlarge the number of underrepresented students who go to college. Two students from a subsidiary group of that network, Let’s Go to College, and another seven or eight students from around California served as regional coordinators, helping to design the data collection methods and write the report. That earned trust among student participants to really open up about their experiences, says Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the lead author of the report.

The responses recorded in the report paint a picture with very little consistency, suggesting that occasionally students were left to fend for themselves when it came to picking strong courses that would prepare them for college.

“My school was very, like, underfunded. We didn’t have a counselor, so I just did my own personal research on how to apply to colleges,” says one student quoted in the report.

That means that without knowing it, many underrepresented high school students may be further disadvantaged if they want to pursue a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career.

This can often fall to factors outside of a student's control, according to the report. For example: Public schools are less likely to have college counselors. And the quality of the advice students get varies.

“I feel like it was YouTube that kind of led me to select all my, like, courses because, yeah, again my guidance counselor, she was really no help and, yeah, it was just me who chose my courses,” says another student’s voice captured in the report.

The Calculus Speedrun

Although it’s disputed whether this should be the case, taking calculus can be critical for getting into a top college and putting yourself on the path to success. In college, students are often expected to take multiple calculus courses before working on real-world problems, and even before they get to college, not taking calculus can knock them off the postsecondary path.

While the Just Equations report highlights the problems that can arise when high school students don’t have access to good counseling, other previous reports have suggested that high school counselors can overcorrect in the other direction, tending to overemphasize the importance of calculus in college admissions.

Depending on what your desired career is, calculus may not be the right course, according to Smith Arrillaga. However, because calculus is used as a shortcut in college admissions, K-12 math curriculum is really a race to calculus, Smith Arrillaga says. By the time students reach middle school, students are being pushed into different pathways, sometimes based on how many slots were available in their school’s calculus class. And that means that if a student is not able to access algebra before they leave eighth grade, then they can actually never complete the sequence of courses necessary to get into calculus, she says.

Also at play: There is a wide difference in students’ perspectives about the significance of calculus, shaped by whether or not they are the first in their families to pursue higher education, Smith Arrillaga says.

It emphasizes the need for more transparency around what’s really required for college admissions, she adds. And she argues that more equitable K-12 policies — like automatically enrolling students into high-level math courses — would help.

But recent attempts to change this have proven controversial.

In 2014, San Francisco schools, in an attempt to “de-track” math, started enrolling all students into Algebra I in ninth grade rather than eighth grade. The hope was to prevent disadvantaged students from being forced into honors or non-honors pathways.

The decision provoked lawsuits and cultural scraps over “woke” math. But a review of the evidence showed that the percent of Black students enrolling in an AP math course remained “statistically significantly indistinguishable” from before the policy change was made, while Hispanic student enrollment in advanced math increased by only 1 percentage point.

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