Who Takes the Hardest Calculus Courses?

National and international tests often highlight achievement gaps among U.S. students in math, but digging a little deeper into the data can reveal ways in which differences in the content students can access can widen those discrepancies.

For example, part of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study gauges the skills of advanced students from the United States and more than 40 other countries and education systems at the end of their secondary school careers, and it also collects data about what courses these student take. Just over 12 percent of all U.S. 12th graders participated in the test in 2015, according to the most recent data released.

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An analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics finds that significantly greater percentages of black and Hispanic students than their white or Asian counterparts reported that the highest math course they had taken was Advanced Placement Calculus AB, the standard AP calculus course covering about a college semester's worth of material. The proportions were reversed for AP Calculus BC, a class of equal difficulty but covering a year's worth of material, according to the College Board.

Why does that matter? Because the TIMSS Advanced shows students who completed AP Calculus BC scored significantly higher than students who took other Advanced Placement, honors, Regents, or other advanced calculus classes-not just in calculus problems, but those involving algebra and geometry, too. Students in these classes were also more likely to perform at the highest achievement levels overall.

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