New research that tracked high school juniors in Los Angeles Unified found that those who took math as seniors — from algebra to advanced calculus — were better positioned to enroll and stay in college than those who didn’t.
The study, “Twelfth Grade Math and College Access“, released in January by UCLA’s Los Angeles Education Research Institute, reinforces similar findings by the California State University and national research. It offers further evidence that most students, not just those interested in STEM majors, could benefit from an extra year of math and that that message should be reinforced among students who have been less inclined to take it, such as those who would be the first in their family to attend college.
LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he plans to act on the findings. “We are now further armed with information that validates and supports the investments and additional offerings of mathematics in the senior year,” he said, adding that he plans to pass on the results not only to high school principals, math teachers and counselors, but also to parents, who need to know about the advantages of a fourth year of math.
The research followed 45,400 students — two cohorts of juniors before the pandemic — through high school graduation and then two years beyond.
Even though those who took math as seniors experienced a slight drop in their overall grade point average, from 3 to 6 hundredths of a point, they were significantly more likely than their peers who skipped math to enroll in a four-year college and to re-enroll for a second year.
This was especially true for those juniors who had a D in a prior math course and needed a higher grade to be eligible for admission to UC and CSU. While most of those students who took math as seniors were more likely to enroll in community college, 7% more enrolled in a four-year college than those who didn’t take math.
California requires only two years of math to graduate from high school. Los Angeles Unified is among those districts that require or strongly encourage students to pass the 15 yearlong courses, known as A-G, that UC and CSU require. Students can graduate with Ds, but it takes Cs or better in all the courses for admission to a state university. Included are at least three years of math, usually Algebra I, geometry and Algebra 2.
Two-thirds of Los Angeles Unified juniors took math or a yearlong quantitative reasoning course as seniors, 10% took a semester course (they weren’t included in the research), and 25% took no math, which became the comparison group. When they were able to, researchers matched students from the same school who took math as seniors with those who didn’t take math, based on grade point average and demographic data; they used similar students from other high schools when they couldn’t find a match.
Researchers also found a significant bump in enrollment in a four-year college (an additional 4.9 to 5.7 percentage points) for those students who had already successfully met their A-G math requirement as juniors and then took math as seniors. Students who completed Algebra II as their highest course took primarily precalculus or statistics. The researchers found that those who took statistics were 4.4% more likely to enroll in a four-year college than those who took precalculus. The latter could have been impacted by a shortage of openings in STEM programs on some CSU campuses, as the study suggested, or perhaps, they struggled with harder math content and chose community colleges instead.
Those students who already had taken at least one advanced course before their senior year took mainly AP Calculus, statistics or AP Statistics, on track for a STEM major in college.
Many of the students who had taken just enough math by the end of junior year to graduate may not have felt successful in math. Only between a quarter and a third met or exceeded standards on the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced standardized math test.
“Some may be approaching senior year math as, ‘I don’t enjoy math and I will take other things in my senior year,’” said Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at UCLA and co-author of the research. “I can relate to that. But what the research suggests is that it probably makes sense to take that math class in senior year because it will be helpful in opening doors. Everything else being equal, those students that take more math are more likely to earn a BA if they start at a four-year than if they start at a two-year college.”
The students who chose a fourth year of math, Carvalho said, put themselves in “a more challenging and rigorous environment. The longer-term benefit of resilience and success in college more than pays for the early, very small drop in their high school GPA,” he said.
Similar to the impact on college enrollment, the research found a 4.5% to 5.8% increase in college persistence — return enrollment for a second year of four-year college — for students who took math in their senior year, compared with those who skipped it.
Skipping a year of math before pursuing a bachelor’s degree or associate degree can be problematic. Math skills become rusty; students may fall behind their peers in majors that require quantitative knowledge, whether biology, statistics or business.
At the same time, the decision by UC, CSU and many other colleges to no longer require SAT and ACT scores for admission creates another reason to take a fourth year of math in high school. Colleges will be giving more consideration to students who take advanced math courses, the report said.
About 1 in 10 students in LA Unified took as seniors either Introduction to Data Science or Transition to College Mathematics and Statistics, which blends topics in math and statistics through real-world applications. Both courses are expected to become more popular.
Advocates say they make math relevant and serve as a bridge to college math. Because students can take them to satisfy Algebra II, critics, which include STEM professionals, say they create the illusion that students are prepared for college math or statistics when, in fact, they’re not.
“Twelfth Grade Math and College Access” doesn’t measure the impact of taking math as a senior, including data science or the applied math course, on students’ college GPA or course taking. A future report by the institute at UCLA may provide answers to college performance, said Phillips.
Shortage of math courses, teachers
In 2019, the CSU Chancellor’s Office proposed adding a fourth year of math or a course in quantitative reasoning for admissions to better prepare students. But after three years of study, CSU trustees in November rejected the plan, relying on an independent evaluation by the nonprofit research and analysis organization MDRC. A failure to satisfy the math requirement is the primary reason why 40% of students don’t graduate eligible for UC and CSU, and a fourth year of math could add another impediment for them, widening an equity gap the trustees want to narrow, it said.
If the goal is to ensure more high school students take high-quality math and quantitative reasoning courses, the CSU instead should focus on addressing the shortage of qualified math teachers in underserved schools and providing enough quality and quantity of courses, “especially to those student groups who face disparities in college access,” MDRC concluded.
“Everyone is in agreement that schools need to be offering enough sections of math courses in 12th-grade year,” Phillips said. Then, she added, it becomes an implementation issue for districts and schools because it is difficult to recruit math teachers.
School counselors and parents, in turn, must encourage students to take them. The study found that students of parents with graduate degrees were significantly more likely to take math as seniors than students of parents without a college degree. There is a similar disparity between Asian students and both Black and white students with similar records as juniors.
Carvalho said the district plans to “explode the information” about the study on social media sites and to look closely at where to expand and diversify math courses among high schools. He has brought the findings to his Cabinet and plans to raise the issue with counselors and principals in summer professional development sessions, he said.
He said he has already had conversations with CSU trustees. “There’s a question here: What will colleges of education do to augment teachers in the area of mathematics to meet the demand that currently exists?”