Twice this year, the University of California faculty has confirmed in broad terms which high school math courses are required for admission. However, many school counselors and students, along with the president of the State Board of Education, complain that they are confused by the lack of details.

High schools want to know if their specific course offerings meet UC requirements. Depending on a student’s interests and intended majors, counselors want to know which courses to recommend. And students want to know if taking less rigorous math classes like statistics and data science might affect their chances of getting into the campus of their choice.

Schools and districts must have “clear, timely, and consistent information” so students and families “understand the impact of their choices,” State Board of Education Chair Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in a July 15 letter to the UC board of governors.

At the urging of a committee of regents, administrators in the University of California’s president’s office pledged last week to provide more clarity by the end of the summer.

“I feel like we’re not approaching this from a student perspective. I feel like we’re approaching this from an academic perspective, and I would really encourage all of us to kind of flip that around a little bit, put yourself in the shoes of a rising sophomore, a rising junior,” Regent Alfonso Salazar, who is president of the UC Alumni Associations, said at the meeting. “That would be incredibly helpful, because people are very nervous and worried.”

The confusion centers on the ongoing debate over whether AP Statistics or data science can be substituted for Algebra 2. Over the past decade, UC’s faculty committee that sets course requirements has approved AP Statistics and, more recently, introductory data science courses as replacements for Algebra 2, which UC requires for admission. By default, those decisions also applied to California State University, which follows exact course requirements, A through G, for admission to its 23 CSU campuses.

But faced with strong objections from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professors, the faculty committee made a hasty about-face in July 2023, just days before the state board adopted a mathematics framework outlining high school math course sequences. The faculty committee voted that AP Stats and Introductory Data Science would no longer “validate,” or replace, Algebra 2 beginning in the fall of 2025.

The STEM community argued that the courses did not have enough Algebra 2 content to prepare students for precalculus, which is a precursor to calculus. Majors such as data science, computer science, and STEM require calculus. Students taking introductory data science courses would be under the illusion that they were prepared to major in data science. UC and many CSU campuses do not offer remedial courses in Algebra 2.

Since 1999, the number of students choosing a STEM major has more than tripled, from 14,081 to 48,851 in 2022. The share of STEM students at UC has increased from 32% to 44% of all majors, according to UC data.

## What role does data science play in this?

The immediate impact of the decision is expected to be limited, since more than 99% of applicants to UC have already taken Algebra 2, according to UC data. But interest in data science, in a world of emerging AI and applications for large datasets, has surged, and promoters have pointed to introductory data as a way to bypass Algebra 2.

The faculty committee, the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, or BOARS, reaffirmed that position in February when it accepted a report from a faculty task force. The report examined the content of AP Statistics and the three most popular introductory data science courses and concluded “that none of these courses labeled as ‘data science’ even come close to meeting the required standard to be a ‘more advanced’ course (Algebra 2). They should be called ‘data literacy’ courses, the report said.

But where does that leave, Darling-Hammond wondered in her letter, the status of potentially hundreds of other courses in data science, financial mathematics and non-AP statistics that UC had previously validated as meeting Algebra 2?

“Most districts are less than a month away from starting the new school year without enough clarity about what math courses they will offer going forward,” she wrote. “But the commission’s criteria and process are not yet fully transparent, and it has reviewed only four courses out of hundreds that have been approved previously.”

One complication facing BOARS and staff within the UC Office of the President, which annually evaluates courses that school districts submit for approval, is that there are no state standards for data literacy. Each course must be independently reviewed.

Darling-Hammond’s letter raised a critical, connected issue: How will UC categorize introductory science and other courses as math courses for eighth-graders in high school?

Neither UC nor CSU requires high school students to take four years of math, but they strongly recommend it. According to UC data, about 80 percent of UC applicants take at least one advanced math course in addition to Algebra 2, usually precalculus or both precalculus and AP Statistics. The report did not include comparable CSU data.

BOARS created a second, 12-member faculty working group of STEM professors to investigate which math courses best prepare students to succeed at UC in whatever field they choose. A report in June agreed that the current three required foundational math courses make sense: Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra 2, or Math 3 in districts that offer an integrated math sequence. It also emphasized that “to be recommended for fourth-year mathematics study, (a course) must build substantially on the content of the lower-level sequence.”

With that in mind, the report, which was adopted by BOARS, divided secondary school mathematics subjects into four categories:

- Category 1 consists of the fundamental mathematics courses
- Category 2 courses, including precalculus and calculus, best prepare students interested in STEM fields.
- Category 3, which also builds on foundational courses, are courses that are appropriate for students interested in quantitative social sciences, such as psychology and history. It selects AP Stats, but not data science.
- Category 4, a catch-all for other courses in quantitative reasoning, would include data literacy. These courses “will continue to increase students’ interest and confidence in mathematics” and may be appropriate for arts and humanities students.

## Tension over fourth year appointments

Advocates of introductory data science argue that many of their courses cover the same Common Core statistics standards as AP Statistics, yet could be placed in the lowest tier. Counselors could discourage students from taking data science, and school districts could back away from offering it. That would hamper the growth of data science at a time when other states are encouraging it, said Aly Martinez, who helped design CourseKata, a two-year introductory data science course, as instructional coordinator of math for San Diego Unified.

“Other states are thinking about a broader range of rigorous math courses. California isn’t. Many districts have made these innovations and have had success. It’s frustrating; it feels like California is closing the door instead of opening it,” said Martinez, who is now the chief program officer for the national nonprofit Student Achievement Partners.

Cole Sampson, the new president of the California Mathematics Council, supported the call for more clarity. The latest UC faculty report “definitely creates some confusion; it didn’t provide enough of a framework for next steps,” he said.

High schools submitting math courses for approval in the fall of 2025 need clear guidance and feedback on how to revise courses, said Sampson, who is director of curriculum, instruction and accountability for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Whether courses are approved or how they are categorized will affect student choices and master schedules. “UC needs to consider local implications,” he said.

UC Provost Katherine Baker acknowledged the need for more information during the regents’ meeting. “There’s a lot of work to be done to communicate what those recommendations mean,” she said, adding, “I don’t sense any hostility among my colleagues toward data science.” To the contrary, she said UC will work with “our K through 12 partners” to strengthen data science courses so students are well-prepared when they enter UC.

At the end of their June report, UC math faculty members acknowledged that many high school students find math courses, particularly Algebra 2, “too full of content” and uninteresting. They suggested that UC form another committee to look more deeply at how high school math courses could be improved to help students better understand mathematical concepts. Members should include faculty members with expertise in improving the quality of K-12 math.

Another working group examining math content, made up of faculty from UC, CSU and community colleges, may release a report later this summer on the issue of alternative math courses.

Sampson said he would welcome that broader opportunity. Many students see Algebra 2 as irrelevant and boring, he said. “It needs a facelift,” he said. “I would advocate for designing new courses.”