As of 2020, California has been leading a controversial experiment in high school math.
That year, public universities in the state — including Berkeley and UCLA — loosened their admissions criteria, telling high schools they would consider applicants who skipped Algebra II, a cornerstone of math instruction.
In its place, students could take data science — a mix of math, statistics and computer science without widely agreed upon high school standards. By enabling data science, the universities said, was an “equity issue” that could send more students to college. But it also raised concerns that some teenagers would be funneled into less challenging coursework, limiting their opportunities once they got there.
Now, the California experiment is under review.
On Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted to drop its endorsement of data science as a substitute for Algebra II as part of new guidelines for K-12 schools.
“We have to be careful and conscious about ensuring rigor,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state board, before the vote.
The board took its cue from the state university system, which also appeared this week to back away from data science as a replacement for Algebra II.
A UC faculty committee — which oversees admissions requirements for the state’s entire public university system — announced Wednesday that it will reexamine what high school courses, including data science, meet the standards for “advanced math.”
The turnaround in California reflects the national dilemma of how to balance educational standards with racial and economic equity. Could data science draw students into higher mathematics? Or will offering data science as an alternative to algebra divert students from acquiring the quantitative skills needed for a range of careers? Would there be a solution if higher mathematics prevents some students from attending university?
In California, hundreds of high schools across the state now offer data science courses. The ability to collect and evaluate data is a valuable life skill that could benefit any student.
And California is one of 17 states that now offers data science to high school students in some form, and at least two states, Oregon and Ohio, offer it as an alternative to Algebra II, according to Zarek Drozda, the director of Data Science 4. All, organization supported by a philanthropy based at the University of Chicago.
The push for data science is also complicated by the wide racial disparities in advanced math, especially in calculus, which is a prerequisite for most science and math majors. In 2019, 46 percent of Asian high school graduates nationwide completed calculus, compared to 18 percent of white students, 9 percent of Hispanic students and 6 percent of black students, according to calculus. 2022 study from the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Many educators are rightly concerned that the numeracy pathway institutionalizes racial disparities by reducing the number of black and Latino students in college,” wrote Robert Gould, the author of a high school data science course. 2021 article. Data courses, he suggested, connect students’ daily lives to their academic careers, “which will hopefully lead to a more diverse college enrollment.”
But in a May 2022 letter to the UC faculty senate committee, eight Black faculty members argued that data science courses “harm students from such groups by steering them away from being prepared for STEM majors.”
Race is not the only problem. Hundreds of faculty members from the state’s public and private universities signed an an open letter expressing concern that substituting data science for Algebra II would lower academic standards. Offering a way around Algebra II, they said, deprives students of their best chance to absorb the mathematical principles increasingly central to many fields, including economics, biology and political science.
There was also dissent from the California State University System. Its academic senate stated in January that the change “threatens to increase the number of students entering the CSU who are identified as needing extra support to succeed.”
But supporters have argued that data science is important to navigating an increasingly numbers-centric society and would help more students attend and graduate from college. Jo Boaler, a mathematics education professor at Stanford who has been a vocal proponent of data science, argued in an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times that Algebra II is largely irrelevant to many students: “When was the last time you divided a polynomial?”
Some faculty members said that at the very least, students and parents should understand that high school data science won’t even qualify a student to take data science in college — because undergraduate data science classes require calculus.
“The messaging is very confusing,” said Brian Conrad, a Stanford professor and director of graduate studies in mathematics. “Who would have thought that taking a course in high school chemistry would not be beneficial for chemistry in college?”