Should More High Schools Require Pre-Calculus?

As an education reform expert who has worked extensively with both high school math curricula and issues of access and equity, I am often asked—should pre-calculus be a universal graduation requirement?

On one hand, mandating an advanced course ensures all students gain exposure to higher-level math, not only those already excelling in the subject. But requiring pre-calc for all may also overwhelm students who struggle with basic algebra.

There are good arguments on both sides. In this comprehensive analysis, I’ll walk through the key considerations around pre-calculus requirements—leveraging my insider perspective.

Why Schools Currently Vary on Requiring Pre-Calculus

Unlike core English and History standards, math course mandates for high school graduation differ widely by state.

According to research by the Education Commission of the States, as of 2022:

  • 15 states required students to complete Algebra II to earn a diploma
  • 7 states specified students take 3 or more years of math (potentially including pre-calculus)
  • The remaining 28 states only require 2 years of math—generally Algebra I and Geometry

This variation stems from contrasting educational philosophies on the role of advanced math. It also connects to differing labor market demands for STEM skills by state.

For example, in tech-centric California, Senate Bill 359 sought to make Algebra II a universal graduation requirement given workforce needs. Comparatively, states like Idaho lean toward choice, mandating just 2 years of math.

The Value Proposition of Required Pre-Calculus

Should more states consider mandating 3-4 years of math, including advanced courses like pre-calculus? As an advocate for high standards and keeping college doors open, I argue yes.

Here’s why pre-calculus specifically carries so much value:

Foundational for College STEM Success

Pre-calculus introduces function transformations, conic sections, sequences, series, and other building blocks integral to college calculus.

And for STEM majors, calculus is non-negotiable. Per National Science Foundation data, over 85% of engineering, math, and physical science degrees require calculus coursework.

With pre-calc mastery, students mimic curves rather than play catch up. This raises persistence rates in related majors.

STEM degrees requiring calculus

Over 85% of key STEM majors require calculus proficiency built through pre-calculus

Enhances College Readiness

Additionally, completing an advanced math course signals students can handle college-level academics. In University of Chicago Consortium on School Research analysis, the strongest non-GPA
predictor of college completion was advanced math exposure.

Connects Math to Real-World Use

Pre-calculus goes beyond rote algorithms, showing how numeric fluency enables financial modeling, data science, and social analysis. By learning these interconnections early, quantitative reasoning skills flourish.

Barriers Can Limit Access

If pre-calculus unlocks so much potential, why don’t more states require it already? Often, structural barriers and outdated tracking impede enrollment, disproportionately hurting marginalized students.

As an advocate for equity, these are troubling realities I continue working to reform.

Varied Access in Lower Grades

With advanced courses like pre-calculus, readiness gaps often start accumulating much earlier. Students without access to experienced elementary math teachers already start on unequal footing.

Per 2022 research from NCTQ, student pass rates on 8th grade math exams strongly correlate to proportion of elementary teachers holding math degrees. Yet most states don‘t set requirements ensuring teachers pass 10+ college math credits.

Further contributing to unequal pre-calculus access is middle school “tracking” into basic or advanced math. Unfortunately, assignment frequently stems from cultural biases rather than merit.

Struggling Districts Face Teacher Shortages

Additionally, schools already facing academic challenges often struggle staffing pre-calculus sections, even if principals prioritize offering them. This connects to national math teacher shortages, especially pronounced in lower-income regions.

Without fundamental access equity fixes, simply mandating more advanced math may overwhelm struggling districts. Reforms must be paired with robust recruitment and training of expert math educators.

Steps Towards Responsible Pre-Calculus Requirements

As states consider the value-add of required advanced math, they must pursue policy changes through an equity lens. This means mitigating barriers where they emerge, while still setting ambitious standards.

Here are some solutions I advocate for as an expert in this field:

  • Incentivize Elementary Math Specialization: Offer loan forgiveness, service scholarships, and pathways for paraprofessionals to offset elementary math teacher shortages
  • Audit Assignment Policies: Review middle school math tracking decisions for bias and create data transparency policies
  • Fund Targeted Supports: Allocate resources towards tutoring, differentiated curricula, and co-teaching models supporting more students in pre-calculus readiness

Pre-Calculus Opens Doors

Should pre-calculus serve as a universal high school graduation requirement? In an ideal world where every student received equitable math foundations from K-8, I would resoundingly argue yes to mandating advanced coursework like pre-calculus.

Exposure to topics like trigonometric functions, analytic geometry, and logarithms pays dividends across nearly all college majors and career pathways—quantitative skills are THAT valuable.

However, our education system continues grappling with systemic access barriers that could make pre-calculus mandates backfire under current conditions.

By coupling ambitious graduation standards with reforms ensuring excellent math instruction for ALL students, we can make universally required pre-calculus a reality. But work remains to close foundational gaps…gaps I’m committed to eliminating over the course of my career.

About the Author

Alice Smith is a high school math curriculum designer and education policy advisor with over 15 years expertise in quantitative learning. She co-founded the National Association for Math Access and Equity and serves as Director of STEM Initiatives for the Excellence in Education Coalition.

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