This study addresses a longstanding question among high school mathematics teachers and college mathematics professors: Which is the best preparation for college calculus—(a) a high level of mastery of mathematics considered preparatory for calculus (algebra, geometry, precalculus) or (b) taking calculus itself in high school? We used a data set of 6,207 students of 216 professors at 133 randomly selected U.S. colleges and universities, and hierarchical models controlled for differences in demography and background. Mastery of the mathematics considered preparatory for calculus was found to have more than double the impact of taking a high school calculus course on students' later performance in college calculus, on average. However, students with weaker mathematics preparation gained the most from taking high school calculus.
Philip Sadler, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard University, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerhard Sonnert, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Harvard University, 60 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138; email@example.com