Denying Black Students Algebra Is Worse Than Florida’s AP African American Studies Snub

Feb 9, 2023 12:00:00 PM


Anyone worried about Florida’s rejection of the College Board’s pilot AP African American studies course should also be worried about this: Across the country, one in four high schools serving mostly Black or Latino students don’t offer Algebra I, a basic step toward college acceptance. 

Zoom out to look at all high schools, regardless of demographics, and it’s not much better: 20% lack the fundamental math courses that prepare students for higher education. According to a 2018 study by ExcelinEd, that means nearly 1.4 million students (most of them non-white) attend a high school where Algebra I simply wasn’t an option in their brick-and-mortar schools.

In contrast, nearly 1.2 million high school graduates took at least one of 38 AP courses offered by the College Board in 2021 (only a handful of those are in math). In other words, there are more kids who can’t access Algebra I each year than all the kids who take an advanced placement course of any kind.

As a Florida father of Black children zoned for a mostly Black high school, this hits close to home. We’ll probably be fine. We could move if we really had to. But that’s not an option for everybody. 

Access to quality education matters. While career and technical training can lead to great jobs for many students, college is still seen by many as a ticket into the middle class. And while access to college-level African American studies can be an enriching experience for high schoolers, I’m more concerned about students getting the fundamentals.

Gear Math Offerings to College Admissions

I see essentially two ways to resolve this. The first is for states to figure out how to make Algebra I and more advanced high school math courses available. The second way is for colleges and universities to reconsider which math courses are required for admission. Better yet, these education decision makers should do both!

A report by the Center for American Progress notes that college algebra courses focus on higher-level skills designed to prepare students for calculus and have “slowly become the default math courses for students.” But very few degree programs, and only about five percent of professionals, ever use such math skills. High school math courses follow the same path: Algebra I, Algebra II, then pre-calculus. But 80%of college students don’t need algebra or calculus to succeed in their degree programs.

I’m not trying to throw shade on algebra and calculus. One teacher I heard speak described calculus as a “key to understanding the universe,” and I believe him. But does every student need to hold that key? 

Doctors, lawyers, many programmers, business managers, mechanics, marketers, legislators, executives, accountants, media producers, social workers, archaeologists and general contractors all get by just fine without ever thinking about derivatives and integral functions. 

Colleges and universities should be more open to other rigorous math pathways that take our modern day realities into account. Alongside an option for calculus, students should also be able to consider a pathway to statistical analysis or data science which is relevant to all of us, given the way data is being used and statistical information is being reported in the news today. Or perhaps a pathway toward computer science for students who find programming and software engineering more useful than calculus. Why force students into a path that does little to serve their future ambitions? 

Bottom Line: We need to offer better options to our students. AP African Studies can be a part of that, but the reality today is that many admissions officers favor calculus-track students, which means we need to do a better job making algebra courses available in those schools that don’t have them. And for tomorrow, our leaders and those who control admissions requirements in college need to consider a broader range of math pathways in addition to calculus. 

Take Action: 

  • Learn more about pathways and providing access to relevant courses by watching this conference session from our friends at ExcelinEd. 

  • Reach out to a college or university you hope your child attends and ask them if students will have a chance without Algebra. Ask if they weigh other mathematical disciplines the same as a path to calculus. Then tell us about it!

Lane Wright

Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand concepts. During his time at Education Post, and with previous organizations, Lane has interviewed teachers, students and local school leaders. He’s spent time watching them work in the classroom and helped them raise their voices on issues they care about. He’s also helped parents advocate—in the news, and before lawmakers—for a better education for their own kids. Lane, his wife, and three children live in Tallahassee, Florida, where his kids attend a public charter school.

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