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California Debates Whether Data Science Can Replace Algebra II

California Debates Whether Data Science Can Replace Algebra II

Since 2020, California has led a contentious experiment in high school math.

That year, public universities in the state — including Berkeley and U.C.L.A. — loosened their admissions criteria, telling high schools that they would consider applicants who had 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. Allowing 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 channeled 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 remove 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 deliberate about ensuring rigor,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state board, said before the vote.

The board took its cue from the state university system, which also appeared to back away this week from data science as a substitute for Algebra II.

A U.C. faculty committee — which controls admission requirements for the state’s entire public university system — announced on Wednesday that it will re-examine what high school courses, including data science, meet the standards for “advanced math.”

The turnabout in California reflects the national quandary over how to balance educational standards with racial and economic equity. Could data science draw students into higher-level math? Or will offering data science as an alternative to algebra divert students from obtaining the quantitative skills required for a range of careers? Should there be a workaround if higher math is blocking some students from attending college?

In California, hundreds of high schools across the state now offer data science courses. The ability to collect and assess data is a valuable life skill, which could benefit every student.

And California is one of 17 states that now offer 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 Everyone, a philanthropy-backed organization 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 nationally had completed calculus, compared with 18 percent of white students, 9 percent of Hispanic students and 6 percent of Black students, according to a 2022 study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Many educators are justifiably concerned that the calculus pathway institutionalizes racial inequities by decreasing the number of Black and Latino students in college,’’ Robert Gould, the author of a high school data science course, wrote in a 2021 article. Data science courses, he suggested, connect students’ everyday lives to their academic careers, “which one hopes will lead to a more diverse university enrollment.’’

But in a May 2022 letter to the U.C. 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 isn’t the only issue. Hundreds of faculty members from the state’s public and private universities have signed 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 shift “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 for navigating an increasingly number-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 for 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,” Brian Conrad, a Stanford professor and director of undergraduate studies in math, said. “Who would think that taking a course in high school chemistry would not be useful for chemistry in college?”


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