PROOF POINTS: Professors say high school math doesn’t prepare most students for their college majors

Topics don’t match what non-STEM students need

by JILL BARSHAY

November 13, 2023

The typical ambitious high school student takes advanced algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus. None of that math may be necessary for the vast majority of undergraduates who don’t intend to major in science or another STEM field.

This story also appeared in Mind/Shift
But those same students don’t have many of the math skills that professors think they actually do need. In a survey, humanities, arts and social science professors say they really want their students to be able to analyze data, create charts and spreadsheets and reason mathematically – skills that high school math courses often skip or rush through.

“We still need the traditional algebra-to-calculus curriculum for students who are intending a STEM major,” said Gary Martin, a professor of mathematics education at Auburn University in Alabama who led the team that conducted this survey of college professors. “But that’s maybe 20 percent. The other 80 percent, what about them?”

Martin said that the survey showed that high schools should stress “reasoning and critical thinking skills, decrease the emphasis on specific mathematical topics, and increase the focus on data analysis and statistics.”

This damning assessment of the content of high school math comes from a survey of about 300 Alabama college professors who oversee majors and undergraduate degree programs at both two-year and four-year public colleges in the humanities, arts, social sciences and some natural sciences. Majors that require calculus were excluded.

The 2021 survey prompted Alabama’s public colleges and universities to allow more students to meet their math requirements by taking a statistics course instead of a traditional math class, such as college algebra or calculus.

Martin and his colleagues later realized that the survey had implications for high school math too, and presented these results at an Oct. 26, 2023 session of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference in Washington D.C. Full survey results are slated to be published in the winter 2024 issue of the MathAMATYC Educator, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges.

In the survey, professors were asked detailed questions about which mathematical concepts and skills students need in their programs. Many high school math topics were unimportant to college professors. For example, most professors said they wanted students to understand functions, particularly linear and exponential functions, which are used to model trends, population changes or compound interest. But Martin said that non-STEM students didn’t really need to learn trigonometric functions, which are used in satellite navigation or mechanical engineering.

College professors were more keen on an assortment of what was described as mathematical “practices,” including the ability to “interpret quantitative information,” “strategically infer, evaluate and reason,” “apply the mathematics they know to solve everyday life, society and the workplace,” and to “look for patterns and relationships and make generalizations.”

“Teachers are so focused on covering all the topics that they don’t have time to do the practices when the practices are what really matters,” said Martin.

Understanding statistics was high on the list. An overwhelming majority of college professors said students in their programs needed to be familiar with statistics and data analysis, including concepts like correlation, causation and the importance of sample size. They wanted students to be able to “interpret displays of data and statistical analyses to understand the reasonableness of the claims being presented.” Professors say students need to be able to produce bar charts, histograms and line charts. Facility with spreadsheets, such as Excel, is useful too.

“Statistics is what you need,” said Martin. “Yet, in many K-12 classrooms, statistics is the proverbial end-of-the-year unit that you may or may not get to. And if you do, you rush through it, just to say you did it. But there’s not this sense of urgency to get through the statistics, as there is to get through the math topics.”

Though the survey took place only in Alabama and professors in other states might have different thoughts on the math that students need, Martin suspects that there are more similarities than differences.

The mismatch between what students learn in high school and what they need in college isn’t easy to fix. Teachers generally don’t have time for longer statistics units, or the ability to go deeper into math concepts so that students can develop their reasoning skills, because high school math courses have become bloated with too many topics. However, there is no consensus on which algebra topics to jettison.

Encouraging high school students to take statistics classes during their junior and senior years is also fraught. College admissions officers value calculus, almost as a proxy for intelligence. And college admissions tests tend to emphasize math skills that students will practice more on the algebra-to-calculus track. A diversion to data analysis risks putting students at a disadvantage.

The thorniest problem is that revamping high school math could force students to make big choices in school before they know what they want to study in college. Students who want to enter STEM fields still need calculus and the country needs more people to pursue STEM careers. Taking more students off of the calculus track could close doors to many students and ultimately weaken the U.S. economy.

Martin said it’s also important to remember that vocational training is not the only purpose of math education. “We don’t have students read Shakespeare because they need it to be effective in whatever they’re going to do later,” he said. “It adds something to your life. I felt that it really gave me breadth as a human being.” He wants high school students to study some math concepts they will never need because there’s a beauty to them. “Appreciating mathematics is a really intriguing way of looking at the world,” he said.

Martin and his colleagues don’t have any definitive solutions, but their survey is a helpful data point in demonstrating how too few students are getting the mathematical foundations they need for the future.