What Math Classes Should I Take In High School?
High school students look to achieve one or two common objectives: graduating high school, and/or acceptance to college. High school graduation requirements vary from state to state. Part of what drives these differences among states is that state universities differ in their admission requirements. And, it can get even trickier: in some states, the high school graduation requirements do not meet the state’s university entrance requirements. Therefore, navigating towards success requires some planning. We recommend this approach: “Start with the end in mind.”
Using a backwardplanning approach early on will prevent falling into the trap of needing more math courses without the time to take them. If you’re planning to take Calculus before college, you’ll definitely need to plan ahead.
Why take Calculus in high school?
Students who are likely going to be STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) students in college are most likely to benefit from taking Calculus in high school. However, unless you take Advanced Placement Calculus and score high enough on the AP exam, colleges will still require you to take Calculus, even if you took Calculus in high school. The main reasons to take Calculus in high school boil down to these:

Improve credentials for college admission.

Completing Advanced Placement Calculus intending to take the AP exam to get college credit without repeating Calculus in college.

To increase the likelihood of having a better experience in a college Calculus course; since the topics are the same, you’re basically repeating the course.
Is Calculus required to get into a selective school?
Colleges don’t require Calculus to be admitted, but with an increasingly competitive landscape, it can be a factor. Students interested in selective schools and STEM majors will be competing with other students who are trying to assemble the best transcript possible. For all but the most competitive scenarios, solid success in Precalculus is an appropriate goal for college admittance.
More courses than school years
Planning should start early. The problem with taking Calculus in high school is you’ll be taking more math courses than there are years available. Most middle schools will follow the standard path of taking Grade 6 Math, Grade 7 Math and Grade 8 Math, so let’s stay with that assumption for now.
Standard High School Math Curriculum
Most states will require 3 or 4 years of math courses for graduation. While some states have rearranged and combined topics from different courses, most schools will offer Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and Precalculus. Trigonometry topics are included in Precalculus and Trig is less likely to be taught as a standalone course. The high school sequence looks like this:
TYPICAL HIGH SCHOOL MATH SEQUENCE
How does Calculus into the sequence?
Here are three suggestions for fitting Calculus in high school.
1. Jump ahead in middle school: with sufficient planning, an advanced student might have this option instead of taking Grade 6, Grade 7, & Grade 8 math. This example presumes a 6thgrade^{} student is ahead one year.
ACCELERATED MATH SEQUENCE
This is just one variation and acceleration through middle school math can work a number of different ways. Any student who is working one or more grades ahead is wellpositioned to fit in Calculus. Additionally, a 6^{th} or 7thgrade^{} student who has shown a strong performance in math is a candidate to skip forward to Algebra 1.
2. Doubleup one year in the course sequence. This can be accomplished by either completing two courses in one school year or by completing a course in the summer. This can be done at any point in the sequence, however, here’s a high school tip: take Trigonometry in the summer after Algebra 2. Trig can easily be condensed by skipping the algebra review topics and together these two courses replace Precalculus.
3. Skip Algebra 2. A student who has a strong performance in Geometry could skip Algebra 2 and proceed to Precalculus. Precalculus is a combination of algebra and trigonometry. The algebra portion of Precalculus is similar to Algebra 2, however, the pace is faster. For example, a topic that may have 2 or three videos in Algebra 2 might have one video in Precalculus.
Some helpful rules of thumb
Here are three guidelines on how a student should proceed through Thinkwell math courses based on their abilities/results:
1. A student who completes Geometry but has not completed Algebra 2, should take Precalculus next ONLY if they have extremely strong algebra skills.
2. A student who takes Algebra 2 and does well in the course, should take Trigonometry next. Precalculus would not be needed.
3. A student who takes Algebra 2 and does not do well in the course, should take PCAL next.
Calculus versus Calculus AP
The topic coverage of the two courses is nearly identical. While taking Calculus AP might have some value on a transcript, colleges will only award credit for making a certain score on the AP exam. Requirements vary by college. Students taking an AP course are not obligated to take the AP exam. The College Board administers the AP exams and the break Calculus into Calculus AB and Calculus BC (approximately equivalent to Calculus 1 and Calculus 2).
Calculus AB versus Calculus BC
The College Board offers the Calculus AB & BC exams these ways:
1. Take the Calculus AB exam only.
2. Take the Calculus AB & BC exams sequentially (one each year).
3. Skip the Calculus AB and take the BC since it includes AB.
Therefore, for scenario #1 use our Calculus AB course; for scenario #2 use our Calculus AB course then our Calculus BC course next year, and for scenario #3 you can use our regular Calculus course so you get both semesters in one year.
What’s “Prealgebra?”
Because a significant portion of students entering college is insufficiently prepared to take collegelevel math (typically “College Algebra), colleges offer “developmental math” courses. Even fouryear schools may offer some developmental math courses but they are not for college credit. Often times a fouryear school will refer students to local twoyear colleges where these courses are taught in abundance. The most common college developmental math sequence is Prealgebra, Beginning Algebra and Intermediate Algebra. Thinkwell’s Prealgebra was built for this purpose and it covers grade 6, 7, & 8 algebra concepts, but in a less rigorous manner than actual grade 6, 7, & 8 courses. The name “Prealgebra” tends to draw homeschoolers looking for a course to prepare for Algebra 1, and it can work in that regard, especially for students who are not following the Grade 6, 7, & 8 Math sequence.
Free placement tests
Thinkwell offers free placement tests to help determine which course a student should take. Each grade level has a placement test and based on the results of the test, a recommendation is made for a suggested course. It’s a good starting point if you don’t know which course to take, or if you want to assess readiness for a course you’d like to take.
Need more help?
Feel free to contact one of our specialists if you’d like more help at info@thinkwell.com. Finally, should you start a Thinkwell course and decide another would be a better fit, we allow a twoweek grace period in which to move to another course.
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