California Debates Whether Data Science Can Replace Algebra II

Since 2020, California has been leading a controversial experiment in high school math.

That year, public universities in the state—including Berkeley and UCLA—loosened their admissions criteria, notifying high schools that they would consider applicants who missed Algebra II, a cornerstone of teaching mathematics.

Instead, students can take data science — a mix of math, statistics, and computer science without widely agreed-upon high school standards. Allows data science, said the university, is the “issue of equity” that can send more students to college. But it also raises concerns that some youth will be funneled into less challenging 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 data science endorsement in lieu of Algebra II as part of new guidelines for K-12 schools.

“We have to be careful and careful about ensuring thoroughness,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state council, said before the vote.

The board is taking its cue from the state university system, which also appears to be stepping back this week from data science in lieu of Algebra II.

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

The turnaround in California reflects national confusion about how to balance educational standards with racial and economic equality. Can data science attract students to higher mathematics? Or will offering data science as an alternative to algebra distract students from acquiring the quantitative skills necessary for a variety of careers? Should there be a solution if higher mathematics is preventing some students from going to college?

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

And California is one of 17 states now offering 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, director of Data Science 4 Everyone, philanthropic-supported organization based at the University of Chicago.

The push for data science is also complicated by wide racial differences in advanced mathematics, especially in calculus, which is a prerequisite for most science and mathematics majors. As of 2019, 46 percent of Asian high school graduates nationwide have completed calculus, compared with 18 percent of white students, 9 percent of Hispanic students, and 6 percent of black students, according to a 2022 studies by the Center for National Education Statistics.

“Many educators are genuinely worried that the path of calculus is institutionalizing racial inequality by reducing the number of black and Latino students in colleges,” Robert Gould, author of a high school data science course, wrote in 2021 article. Data science courses, he suggests, link students' daily lives to their academic careers, “which will hopefully lead to more diverse university enrollments.”

But deep May 2022 letter told a UC faculty senate committee, eight Black faculty members argued that data science courses “are harming students from such cohorts by keeping them from preparing for STEM majors.”

Race isn't the only problem. Hundreds of lecturers from public and private universities have signed the an Open letter expressed concern that switching data science for Algebra II would lower academic standards. Offering the Algebra II exit, they say, takes away students' best opportunities to absorb the mathematical principles that are increasingly important to many fields, including economics, biology, and political science.

There are also differences of opinion from the California State University System. Its academic senate stated in January that the shift “threatens to increase the number of students entering CSU who are identified as needing extra support to succeed.”

But proponents argue that data science is essential for navigating an increasingly numbers-centric society and will help more students enter and graduate from college. Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford who has been an outspoken proponent of data science, argues in an opinion in The Los Angeles Times that Algebra II is largely irrelevant to many students: “When was the last time you divided a polynomial?”

Several faculty members say that, at the very least, students and parents should understand that even high school data science would not qualify a student to take data science in college — because undergraduate data science classes require calculus.

“The order is very confusing,” said Brian Conrad, a Stanford professor and director of undergraduate studies in mathematics. “Who would have thought taking high school chemistry would not work for college chemistry?”