California is among a handful of states that require the least amount of high school math to earn a diploma—just two courses. That means most students can complete their full complement of high school math education, even the “enhanced” requirements for admission to California State University and University of California campuses, well before their senior year. But is there a benefit to continued coursework beyond a state’s or an individual school’s minimum prescribed course load? A new study digs into the data to investigate the impacts of taking an additional year of math in high school on college enrollment and persistence.
A research team led by Leonard Wainstein of Reed College used longitudinal administrative and survey data from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Their analysis focused on two cohorts of students who were first-time eleventh graders in either 2015–16 or 2016–17 and who remained in the district through the following year. It included over 45,300 students in district high schools and district-affiliated charter schools.
The comparison looked at a group of seniors who took no math at all and three groups who took another a full year of math. While all the senior math non-takers had already completed their high school requirements in that subject, as well as any college preparatory requirements relevant to them, the math-takers fell into six initial groups. They included two groups that needed to take math in twelfth grade to graduate, one group that needed to boost their math grade to meet college admissions requirements, and three groups who opted for additional math courses beyond the requirements. For ease of comparison, Wainstein and his team excluded the two groups finishing high school requirements and the highest-flying optional group—those who took two additional courses above requirements during senior year.
Wainstein found that senior math-takers, overall, enrolled in college at higher rates than otherwise-similar peers who did not take any math in twelfth grade. The effect ranged from a 3.2 percent to a 6.4 percent boost. These positive effects occurred even though math-takers experienced a slight “hit” to their overall GPA—from 3 to 6 hundredths of a point—which their peers did not. Additionally, enrollment in four-year colleges was as much as 5.8 percent higher for math-takers than math non-takers. The strongest effects were seen among those students taking additional math courses above the California college admissions requirements. The researchers also found a 4.5 to 5.8 percent increase in college persistence—returning for a second year of four-year college—for students who took math in their senior year, compared with those who skipped it. Wainstein’s team found similar positive impacts from traditional courses taken in senior year—such as precalculus and algebra 2—and from so-called “alternative” offerings such as Transition to College Mathematics and Statistics or Introduction to Data Science. It seems that the mechanism at work is, especially for college-bound seniors, “keeping one’s hand in” the math game.
LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently announced that he plans to act on the findings in this report, to “explode the information” and make sure principals, teachers, guidance counselors, and parents know of the benefits of taking math in senior year, even for those who have already met state and university requirements. Diversifying the courses offered and increasing access to those options district-wide are also on his to do list. All of this will hopefully combine to help incent more students who will benefit from keeping their skills sharp to take more math in the future even while the state’s requirements remain at rock bottom.
SOURCE: Leonard Wainstein et. al., “Twelfth Grade Math and College Access,” UCLA Los Angeles Education Research Institute (January 2023).