Since 2020, California has conducted a controversial high school math experiment.
That year, public universities in the state — including Berkeley and UCLA — relaxed their admissions criteria, telling high schools they would consider applicants who skipped Algebra II, a cornerstone of mathematics education.
In its place, students could take data science, a mix of math, statistics, and computer science with no widely agreed upon standards in high school. By enabling data science, the universities said, it was an « equity issue » that could send more students to college. But he also raised concerns that some teenagers would be channeled into less demanding courses, limiting their opportunities once they get there.
Now, the California experiment is under review.
On Wednesday, the state Board of Education voted to remove its endorsement of data science as a replacement for Algebra II as part of new guidelines for K-12 schools.
« We must be careful and deliberate in ensuring rigor, » said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state council, ahead of the vote.
The board took a cue from the state university system, which also appeared to be moving away from data science as a replacement for Algebra II this week.
A faculty committee at UC — which oversees admissions requirements for the state’s entire public university system — announced Wednesday it will review which high school courses, including data science, meet « advanced math » standards.
The turnaround in California reflects the national dilemma of how to balance educational standards with racial and economic equity. Could data science attract students to higher-level math? Or will offering data science as an alternative to algebra divert students from obtaining the quantitative skills required for a variety of careers? Should there be a workaround if higher math is preventing some students from going to college?
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, one that could benefit any student.
And California is one of 17 states now offering data science in some way to high school students, 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, a philanthropy-supported organization based at the University of Chicago.
The push for data science is also complicated by wide racial disparities in advanced math, especially in calculus, which is a prerequisite for most science and math graduates. In 2019, 46% of Asian high school graduates nationwide had completed the calculus, compared with 18% of white students, 9% of Hispanic students and 6% of black students, according to a Study 2022 by the National Center for Education Statistics.
« Many educators are rightly concerned that the computation pathway institutionalizes racial inequities by decreasing the number of Black and Latino students in college, » wrote Robert Gould, author of a high school data science course, in an article from 2021. Data science courses, she 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 in such groups by driving them away from being prepared for STEM majors. »
Race isn’t the only issue. Hundreds of professors from public and private state universities have signed a open letter expressing concern that replacing data science with Algebra II would lower academic standards. Offering a way around Algebra II, they argued, deprives students of their best chance at absorbing 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 said in January that the passage « threatens to increase the number of students entering CSU who are identified as needing additional support to succeed. »
But advocates argued that data science is important for navigating an increasingly numbers-centric society and would help more students go to and graduate from college. Jo Boaler, a math 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 will not even qualify a student to do data science in college, because undergraduate data science classes require calculus .
« The message is very confusing, » said Brian Conrad, a Stanford professor and director of graduate studies in mathematics. « Who would think that taking a high school chemistry class wouldn’t be good for college chemistry? »