Posted on March 14, 2023

Some Educators Argue Calculus Should Be Dethroned

Jo Napolitano, The 74, March 13, 2023

Successful completion of high school calculus has long been an unofficial must-have for those seeking admission to the nation’s top colleges: The course has, for decades, served as a signal to admissions officers that a student’s coursework has been robust.

But some in education say it’s time to reconsider this de facto requirement: Many schools — particularly those serving large numbers of Black, Hispanic or low-income students — don’t offer the course. And even when they do, it’s of dubious value, they say.

“High school calculus is a complete waste of time and a form of torture,” said Alan Garfinkel, professor of integrative biology and physiology and medicine at UCLA. “The view … that math is a bunch of symbolic expressions, and you bang on them with tricks to get other symbolic expressions, is a bankrupt concept of math, dating from the 19th century.”

The course, as it’s often taught at the high school level, is inaccessible and often perceived as irrelevant to students’ interests, critics say. Just 16% of high school graduates earned credit for calculus in 2019, according to data culled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress {snip}

Only 52% of schools with high student of color enrollment offered the course in 2017-18 compared to 76% of schools with low student of color enrollment, according to a 2021 report from the Learning Policy Institute.

The study, which analyzed data primarily from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, found the course was also scarce in more impoverished communities: Just 45% of high schools enrolling a high proportion of students from low-income families offered the class compared to 87% of high schools with a low proportion of these students.


“There is a perception that calculus is required for admission to selective colleges, regardless of the fact that only about a handful of higher ed institutions in the U.S. actually require the course for all students,” said Melodie Baker, national policy director at Just Equations, an organization that promotes math policies that support equity in college readiness and success.


Sarah Spence Adams, professor of mathematics at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, said she understands why high school counselors place such power in the course: College admissions officials had come to rely upon it, perhaps unfairly.


“I am rightfully worried that the disproportionate focus on calculus is unfairly excluding students, particularly students who come from backgrounds that have been historically excluded — and are still being excluded — from STEM majors and the well-paying careers that can follow,” she said.

Access to the course varies across the country, influenced by race and wealth. Only 27% of New York state high schools with high student-of-color enrollment offered calculus compared to 81% of schools with low student-of-color enrollment, The Learning Policy Institute found. In New Jersey, the organization reported, the difference was 50 percentage points: It was 49 percentage points in Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.


Baker was among several who said the unofficial standard must change.

“The focus on calculus in high school is a vicious cycle that needs to stop: It’s inequitable and will not lead to a stronger body of college applicants or a stronger society,” she said. “It will lead to more of the same and delay 21-century advancement that relies on data and technology.”