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What If I Hadn't Taken AP Calculus in High School?


Sean Cavanagh's most recent blog entry, "Rush to Calculus?," about a math professor at Rutgers University who questions the push for students to take calculus in high school struck a chord with me.

I'm someone who took calculus my senior year of high school because I thought that's what college-bound students were supposed to do. I was a transfer student to Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee my senior year; I'd gone to high school in New Wilmington, Pa., before that. My family had followed my dad to Oak Ridge for a sabbatical year. I'd taken all the hard courses back home, so the Oak Ridge High staff assigned me to all the hard courses in my new school. One of those ended up being Advanced Placement Calculus.

I soon realized that the content was way over my head, but it never occurred to me, nor likely to my parents, that I should drop out. The difficulties I faced, I believe, were a combination of not having acquired a strong foundation in math in my previous classes, though my grades had been acceptable, along with the likelihood that I had only average ability to learn math concepts.

My two older siblings had good science and math ability (one had already earned a college math degree) so it's likely my parents thought I'd be able to get up to speed. But instead, I increasingly fell behind my classmates and eventually even stopped doing my homework, which was voluntary, in despair. My B during the first term dropped to a D by the last term of the class; it was the only D I ever received in my school career. I got a C average for the year and didn't bother to take the AP test. I sat in shame while my teacher coached my classmates for the test during the end of the school year.

I did, however, later take a College Level Examination Test in math and scored well enough that my college awarded me credit for one college-level math class. So I never had to take another math class in my life, and I didn't. AP Calculus had killed my desire to do so.

Looking back, I wish that I'd skipped the AP Calculus class and taken some of the strong AP history classes offered at Oak Ridge High School instead, which were more aligned with my interest and abilities. Or I wish that someone had encouraged me to drop out of calculus when it was clear I didn't have the foundation to do well in the class. It would have saved me a lot of tears and feelings of shame.

By the way, I did take AP English that same year, excelled in it, realized my love for language and literature, and majored in English in college. So not all was lost.

But it was interesting to read that Joseph G. Rosenstein argues that pushing students to take advanced math in high school may be hurting some students rather than helping them.


AP calculus ought not to be the only calculus choice in a high school. Was it in this case? Oak Ridge is like Los Alamos, isn't it? Everyone takes AP because it's all that's offered, and everyone is related to a scientist or engineer?

Requiring math throughout high school seems appropriate, but pushing everyone to do calculus might not be.

In 1980, as I recall, Oak Ridge High School offered two kinds of AP Calculus. I took the more advanced of the AP classes. I guess another option would have been to take the less advanced AP Calculus class. I doubt I would have fared well in that one either.

Do you think you would have had a desire to take more math classes down the road if you hadn't rushed in to AP calculus?

What was the bigger loss--the death of your desire to study mathematics or the lost opportunity to take AP history?

It's not likely I would have taken more math classes anyway. The biggest loss was probably not taking one of the AP history classes.

Pushing students to take advanced classes of any kind is, I think, unwise. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to transfer out of one of these classes - if you'd wanted to drop AP math that year and return to the regular stream, would it have been simple to do so?

I was always good at math in school. Then I did first-year calculus in university; I found it fascinating in theory, but wasn't willing to put in the necessary work to understand the concepts. It was my last math course, and I sometimes regret that, but I also realize that I learned something valuable from trying it and being only marginally successful. This is how we choose one path over another.

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