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Just Equations and NACAC

When two groups, Just Equations and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, released a report in February calling on colleges to rethink the role of calculus in admissions, it provoked some controversy. In reality, calculus is rarely required for admission. But many high school and college admissions counselors consider passing calculus (preferably with a 5 on the Advanced Placement exam) as a sign of a student who is worthy of attending a top college. Just Equations and NACAC said this attitude discourages students from taking advanced mathematics courses that they may find interesting and that teach math that they will use later in life, such as statistics.

To be sure, there are students who should take calculus, such as those who are preparing to study engineering or physics. But they are a distinct minority. The report wasn’t antimathematics or anticalculus. In fact, it was praised by mathematics leaders.

So why do so many high school students who aren’t in that minority of students take calculus? The answer may come in a second report from the two groups, being released today. The report says college counselors in high schools continue to think calculus is the best choice.

“For most high school counselors, calculus is a default recommendation,” the new report says. “Respondents valued calculus nearly universally, but particularly for students applying to selective institutions, even though they did not believe the course is academically necessary for all students. Most advise students with selective colleges in their sights to take at least one calculus course, ideally an Advanced Placement course. The top reason was to ensure students are competitive for the colleges they want to attend—especially students seeking to major in STEM and business, but often even for those interested in the humanities or social sciences.”

And this is a problem, the report says.

“As long as calculus remains overvalued in college admissions, students without access to it can be at a disadvantage in the college application process. Calculus is not universally available, with students experiencing poverty and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students facing the longest odds of taking the course.”

Two surveys were used for the new report. One was sent to 1,967 high school counselors and received 323 responses, 232 of which were from counselors at private high schools. A second, similar survey was sent to independent counselors—consultants or advisers who are hired by families to support students with their college applications. Of the 605 individuals who were sent the survey, 70 responded.

The respondents “are not representative of all high schools in the country.” But the report says that “high school counselors who belong to NACAC and respond to surveys likely represent schools with a strong college-going culture and an interest in competitive college admissions.”

These responses were compared to past surveys of college admissions officers.

The survey found that 93 percent of high school counselors said calculus gives students “an edge in admissions,” but only 53 percent of college admissions officers agreed.

When asked whether not taking calculus in high school narrows students’ college options, 73 percent of high school counselors agreed or somewhat agreed, compared to just 34 percent of admissions officers.

“Some selective institutions—including Stanford, Harvard, and the University of California—have made efforts to clarify that calculus is not an admissions requirement,” the report says. “Nevertheless, many counselors have concluded, based on their own experiences, that the course is at least strongly expected at highly selective schools.”

The top recommendation of the two groups is more clarity from colleges.

Colleges should “adopt clear admissions policies and specific guidelines about math expectations for various schools and majors. In collaboration with faculty, admissions offices should reconsider how they weigh various math courses on students’ transcripts in alignment with students’ college goals.”

And the colleges must “implement the policies consistently.” The report warns that “counselors, teachers, and families won’t trust that policies have changed unless they see them translated into practice.”

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