April 23, 2021

Pamela Burdman: Don’t Let Calculus Become a Replacement for the SAT

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Pamela Burdman blogs at Just Equations, a site that offers resources for the role of mathematics in equity. Here she applauds the end of the SAT as a higher education gatekeeper, but warns that it should not be replaced with something equally unjust.

After years of debates over their validity, the SAT and ACT were removed quite abruptly last year from most colleges’ admissions requirements. Though their elimination—spurred by the cancellation of test administrations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—was temporary in many cases, it could become a permanent state of affairs for some institutions.

Caltech, for example, is using a two-year pause to study whether standardized test scores are a useful metric and should be reintroduced, and the ten-campus University of California system has decided to eliminate admissions tests entirely for at least five years.

Given the well-documented disparate impact of norm-referenced tests like the SAT, these changes are long overdue. But, as other colleges and universities ponder similar moves, it’s important that they don’t simply replace these problematic tests with other inequitable ways of admitting students.

As I’ve written before, high school calculus, especially AP Calculus, already plays a disproportionate role in access to competitive colleges. Almost no college or university in the country requires a calculus course for admission. The rare exceptions are science and engineering schools, where the majority of majors actually use calculus. Caltech, for example, seeks “mastery of calculus,” and Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommends “math through calculus.”

But despite not being an actual requirement for admission at most institutions, a course in calculus remains a perceived requirement for admission to highly selective colleges around the country.

Follow this link for the rest of the post and further explanation of why calculus represents an inequitable requirement.

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