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?”

*To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.*

## Comments (4)

## Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

Gigi Carunungan2 months ago2 months agoThe problem is not as much that students don't take math in their senior year as much as that math becomes simply a requirement to get to a four year college program. How many hours are spent in grueling math education classes + homework + tests and then how much do students remember and feel good about their math learning experiences? If math classes are exciting, inspiring, empowering, and make sense, then students may even … Read More

The problem is not as much that students don’t take math in their senior year as much as that math becomes simply a requirement to get to a four year college program. How many hours are spent in grueling math education classes + homework + tests and then how much do students remember and feel good about their math learning experiences? If math classes are exciting, inspiring, empowering, and make sense, then students may even consider taking more than 4 courses in their high school years. This is the issue. Pedagogy. Relevance. Connection.

Dave2 months ago2 months agoLooks like the correlational fallacy at work. Isn’t it more likely that there’s something about the students who take 4th year math that leads them to attend a 4 year college than it is the 4th year math class_ that’s causing that?

Replies

Matilda2 months ago2 months agoThe authors specifically address the concern you raise. "The key methodological concern in using non-experimental data to estimate the effect of taking 12th grade math on students’ future educational outcomes is that 12th grade math course taking is strongly determined by a wide range of factors, such as students’ prior math achievement, the availability of math courses at students’ schools, and students’ postsecondary aspirations, and those same factors also influence students’ postsecondary outcomes. In other words, … Read More

The authors specifically address the concern you raise.

“The key methodological concern in using non-experimental data to estimate the effect of taking 12th grade math on students’ future educational outcomes is that 12th grade math course taking is strongly determined by a wide range of factors, such as students’ prior math achievement, the availability of math courses at students’ schools, and students’ postsecondary aspirations, and those same factors also influence students’ postsecondary outcomes. In other words, part, and possibly all, of the association between 12th grade math course taking and outcomes like college enrollment may be attributable to correlation rather than causation. … We approach this methodological challenge in three ways. First, we measure a large number of predictor variables at the end of 11th grade that potentially influence both students’ math course taking in 12th grade and their later outcomes, and we compare the outcomes of students who were similar on those predictors but differed in their 12th grade math course taking. Second, we estimate various types of quasi-experimental models that use different assumptions about the best ways to equate students on these predictors, and we emphasize results that are consistent across different models. Third, we use sensitivity tests that communicate the extent to which our results may be biased.” -pg. 6-7

Jim2 months ago2 months agoDoes this surprise anyone? Anyway the research is useless at it does not include psychographic measurements which would include motivation. Demographics is not destiny, within groups some people will be more motivated and other less. Less motivated students will not take math if they can avoid it. Send motivated kids to high schools that have classes and remove the disruptive students. It’s not that difficult. What to do with the unmotivated and/or disruptive students? Nobody knows.