Most colleges during the pandemic stopped making applicants submit standardized test scores — and for now, those policies seem here to stay. It’s a shift many students and college officials have embraced as a way to make the admission process more accessible, especially for disadvantaged students.

But it has also forced colleges, especially the most selective ones, to elevate other criteria as they pick who gets in and who gets denied.

Without the ability to compare students’ SAT and ACT scores, admissions officers are placing more importance on signs of rigor on an applicant’s transcript. That is especially apparent in how one math class — calculus — is viewed on a student’s record, experts say.

Calculus has long been considered one of the most difficult classes a high schooler can take. And it’s an easy way to sort students: those who have taken calculus, and those who haven’t.

But there’s a problem: Some students never had the chance.

To take calculus in high school, students have to get placed on an accelerated math track by eighth grade. Federal data shows Black and Latinx students are less likely to be placed on that track than white and Asian students.

And there’s another catch: Students have to attend a high school that offers calculus.

That’s just half of all high schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and just over one-third of schools serving predominantly Black and Latinx students.

“There are just a lot of barriers that we don’t see underneath,” said Jose Arias, a math teacher at Evanston Township High School in the northern suburbs.

The college admissions game

Arias is one of those people who didn’t take calculus in high school.

“I don’t know if I knew how to work that game as well as others,” he said.

The college admissions game, that is. Hardly any colleges explicitly require calculus. But there’s a strong perception that calculus is the “gold star” high schoolers need on their transcripts when applying to selective schools. That’s true even for students who don’t have an interest in math-related majors. English or history majors at top schools have long been expected to have calculus on their transcript.

There is a small but growing group of people challenging this idea because it disadvantages students of color, like Arias.

He immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his mom when he was 12 years old. He had to learn English.

“I had to work really hard … just to reach regular level classes,” Arias said. “I didn’t know that they’re going to look at a transcript and look that I didn’t have calculus in my transcript … I know that my mom did not know those things.”

Melodie Baker calls this “shadow information,” which is generally more available to those communities with resources and tend to be white, Asian and wealthy. Baker is the national policy director for Just Equations, a nonprofit working toward equity in education.

“Just off the bat, you’re cutting off so many underserved minorities,” she said.

In conjunction with the National Association of College Admission Counseling, Baker’s organization surveyed admissions officers in 2021 about the role calculus plays in evaluating students. Most respondents said applicants would not be penalized for not taking calculus if their school didn’t offer it, so long as they made the most of the academic opportunities available to them.

But nearly 4 out of 5 admissions officers said faculty at their institutions place a high priority on calculus as a sign of rigor on high school transcripts. And 79% agreed with the statement, “Students who have taken calculus are more likely to succeed in college.”

“You will find that students who take calculus are also more likely to take other rigorous classes and have good grades in other subjects than students who do not,” one admissions officer told surveyors. Just Equations did not identify any of the officers interviewed by name. “At many high schools, the top students by overall GPA or rank are the ones taking calculus.”

Baker sees calculus not as a sign of rigor, but of privilege. Federal data shows wealthier students are four times more likely to take calculus than low-income students.

“Calculus, for all intents and purposes, is a status symbol,” Baker said. “Taking calculus or abstract math … doesn’t make you any more intelligent than someone who was taking AP English or AP World History.”

Baker said calculus needs to be made more accessible. But also, she said, selective colleges need to take it off a pedestal and consider other math courses like data science and statistics in its place. For students going into the social sciences, and even some science-related fields, these courses may offer more relevant preparation for their careers.

“If we continue to just singularly focus on calculus as the standard or the proxy for rigor, or a high quality student, it doesn’t just hurt us equity-wise,” Baker said. “It … hurts our ability to compete globally.”

Alternatives to calculus

Arias, the Evanston math teacher, is taking on this issue at his school. He eventually took calculus in college but now teaches a less traditional math course to seniors.

It’s a design thinking class that students can take after following the traditional math trajectory through geometry, algebra and maybe precalculus. Students work in groups to solve real-world problems. And they use the analytical skills they learned in previous math classes to do so.

Arias said some of his students who were successful in traditional math classes struggle in this more unorthodox class.

“They’re like, ‘Okay, well, tell me how to do it. And then I want to see you doing it, and then I can do it again,’ ” he said. “But it’s like, ‘No, this is a challenge. This is a problem that we have. You have to come up with a solution, and you have to design a solution for this issue.’ ”

On a mid-January day, students were solidifying plans to improve relationships between kids and safety officers at their school.

“By the end of today, you should have a prototype of this solution,” Arias told his students.

Evanston Township High School senior Arrie Searcy works on her project in a design thinking class that students can take after finishing more traditional math classes, like geometry and algebra. Lisa Philip / WBEZ

Senior Arrie Searcy was planning a basketball game for students and safety officers, and was trying to figure out a way to foster conversation between the two groups. Together with Arias she brainstormed a competition that alternates shootouts with discussion points.

Some observers may not recognize this coursework as math. And the people reading applications to selective colleges may not put it on the same level as calculus.

Arias, the teacher, thinks that’s unfair.

“It just looks different,” he said. “You’re still solving that problem. It’s just not using, perhaps, those formulas and numbers. It’s just using your critical thinking, your problem-solving skills, your collaboration to come up with ideas to solve this problem.”

To Arias, there is no better preparation for college and the real world. He hopes, one day, more admissions officers might agree with him.

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @LAPhilip.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.