Can data science prepare high school students for success?

The Hechinger Report recently highlighted the ongoing debate among educators about high school students’ math curriculum—and how alternative courses like data science could affect their ability to enroll in postsecondary programs or pursue careers. California is at the center of these discussions, as it’s one of 17 states that currently offer high school data science courses: nontraditional math classes that integrate computer programming, math, and statistics. Ohio and Oregon offer data science as an alternative to standard Algebra II classes. Data science advocates say the courses meet students where they are, in contrast to math concepts introduced in Algebra II, pre-calculus, and calculus, which students may struggle to master.

The appeal of data science

“Data science is changing [students’] view of math,” Jay Sorensen, an educational technology coordinator in the Oxnard Union High School district, tells The Hechinger Report. Oxnard, a school system serving a predominantly Latine and ethnically diverse student population, began offering data science classes in Fall 2020, when California’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) changed the A-G course criteria for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems, ranking data science as an equivalent course to Algebra II. 

Oxnard educators saw an opportunity, having struggled to get students to engage in math courses. Oxnard students who enrolled in the data science course as juniors during the 2022-23 academic year were more likely to enroll in math classes in their senior year, according to district data. Sorenson, who helped design the data science class, says it may shift the mindset of students who “maybe didn’t enjoy math or were frustrated with math or hated math before.”

High school students who are enrolled in data science courses say they take the subject for a variety of reasons, sometimes using the course to fulfill math requirements and sometimes taking it alongside other advanced math courses. Jaya Richardson, an Oxnard senior enrolled in a data science class, says the class has helped her, a self-described “[not] a math person,” understand concepts after struggling with them previously. “It’s still stressful, it’s still hard, but it’s more beneficial,” she says of her data science class. “We still do math in here, but it breaks it down in a way where I’m able to understand it without being overwhelmed.”

Backlash against nontraditional math courses

However, critics say loosening course requirements weakens standards originally set up to provide students with the foundational math needed for college-level work. The approach also could funnel students into remedial math courses in college, “not because they can’t learn the math, but because they made decisions in high school that deprive them of the opportunity to learn the content for them to do well,” said Adrian Mims, founder of the Calculus Project, which offers math preparatory courses for Black, Latine, and low-income students. 

Although Algebra II and other foundational math courses are part of SAT and college math placement exams, many colleges do not offer Algebra II classes, leaving students with limited options if they decide to pursue math-intensive postsecondary degrees.

Such criticism led to the eventual reversal of California’s A-G decision in July 2023, and this February, BOARS released new recommendations that said neither data science nor long-approved statistics classes could be used as Algebra II alternatives. The group is expected to provide additional guidance in May.

More equitable access to advanced math

California’s changes to its math admissions requirements reflect national conversations about which math courses create rigorous yet equitable pathways to postsecondary success, especially for students from underrepresented groups. Some educators say combining data science concepts into Algebra II may better prepare students for college-level math classes and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers while keeping students engaged with coding, data science, and other real-world math. 

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