Q&A: What are the Sides on the Argument about Lowering Math Requirements?

by Justin Skycak on

Cross-posted from here.

I don’t think anyone denies that lowering math requirements will cause mathematical proficiency to decrease.

The point of contention is whether it will lead to a net improvement or decline in the future life outcomes of students when you weight the advantages against the disadvantages.

Here are some examples of advantages and disadvantages.


  • Higher graduation rates. Lots of career/education opportunities (even those that don't use any math) are off-limits to people who don't have a high school degree.
  • More focus on life/career skills. Most students will never need to solve a quadratic equation or system of linear equations again in their lives. Even if they don't know how to work with variables at all, it might not hinder them too much (again we're talking about "most" students, not the honors students). But they will definitely need to budget their finances, take out and pay back loans, prepare resumes, etc.


  • Lack of preparation for college. Many colleges require math courses. When college-bound students graduate high school with lower mathematical proficiency, they are far more likely to struggle in college.
  • Many lucrative careers become off-limits. For lots of STEM careers, you actually do need to use algebra, sometimes calculus, and sometimes even math that's beyond calculus (e.g. in engineering). And even for those careers where you don't use much math on a daily basis, you often still need to know math to pass pre-career requirements (e.g. most medical schools have course requirements and standardized testing requirements that cover algebra-based physics). If you want to go into medicine, finance, technology, engineering, law, banking, or some other field generally seen as lucrative, and you didn't develop a firm grasp of at least algebra / trigonometry / precalculus in high school, then you're up against a steep uphill battle.
  • Decline in course quality. There's always pressure from students and parents to make courses easier and inflate grades. If there's an external validation metric like a standardized test, then teachers can point to that as justification for "holding the line" in their classroom -- and they're also more incentivized to hold the line because if they don't, it will show in their students' standardized test scores, and they'll get chewed out by school administrators. When you remove the external validation metric, you remove accountability for learning. If teachers aren't held accountable for student learning, many (most?) teachers won't hold students accountable for learning.

Group Differences

Additionally, standardized test scores generally vary across groups, but people often disagree on how to interpret that, so I won’t put it under either list above.

  • Some believe this indicates bias in the test itself, since they believe all groups would have the same score distribution if the test were unbiased. These people generally want test-based requirements to be removed.
  • Others believe that the test is accurately measuring subject ability, which, due to other factors (quality of schools, access to tutoring, cultural value of academic achievement, kids' available bandwidth for studying, parents' available bandwidth to keep their kids in line, presence of role models, etc) is not distributed equally across groups.
    • ↑ This side shares a common belief that the tests expose real group differences. But even still, there is controversy: some think such metrics ought to be removed ("group differences are uncomfortable and maybe if we eliminate ways of measuring the differences then the differences will go away"), while others disagree ("it's better to face reality with full knowledge of the situation").