Senior Dilemma: What to Take – AP Statistics or Calculus BC?

This question arose in a NextDoor discussion the other day. Students who will major in science, particularly the physical sciences, or who will be required to take calculus at their prospective college, should stick with calculus as I explain below.

AP Statistics has become a bit of a fad in the last few years in some media/social media stories that promote it as a more “practical” math education, but it is very different from all other high school math classes. It requires much more memorization and appeals to a different kind of student.  Another reason students at Aragon consider the class is because it is taught by Mr. Shahrvini, an excellent teacher.  Mr. Shahrvini also teaches some of the freshman/sophomore accelerated math classes as well as multivariable calculus.

I discuss AP Statistics briefly at the end of my class registration article and cover it in detail in my article specifically about AP Statistics.  Here I give the pros and cons of choosing AP Statistics versus Calculus, especially Calculus BC.

In AP Statistics’ favor, if a reasonably intelligent student reads the textbook and does the homework religiously, they should be able to get through the class without tutoring.  (Thus parents looking to save money might favor this class, but be sure to read the rest of  the article before deciding!!)  If students don’t do this work, tutoring will be a waste of money.  To solve many of the word problems, students need to memorize the statistical techniques; the concepts are not so complicated that they require exceptionally clear explanation.  If students refuse to memorize the methods, they will not be able to solve the homework and test problems.  Tutoring is a rather expensive means of trying to force students to memorize material that they should be able to do on their own!

Personally, after doing so for several years, I no longer accept AP Statistics students precisely for this last reason.  My time is better spent helping students with the more complex (and more interesting) concepts in precalculus, calculus, and physics.  I have repeatedly found that AP Stats attracts students looking for an “easier ride” their senior year, only to find that they still have to do a much different kind of work than they normally find in a math class. I detail the reasons for this in in my AP Stats article.

If a student is planning to be a science major in college and has taken calculus AB (as I advise instead of jumping directly to BC), I think it is better to move on to BC instead of taking Statistics.  The first three months of BC will reinforce what knowledge they hopefully acquired in AB, and then BC will go on to the very interesting topic of infinite series and a few other topics not in AB.  Students who take BOTH Calculus AB and BC should begin college with a very good foundation.  This is one of the few STEM AP class combinations that I can endorse to some extent – I am not a fan of the AP system in general.  Taking AB or BC alone does not, in my opinion, sufficiently reinforce the material, and I would strongly advocate that those students restart calculus from the beginning in college.

However, if a student takes Calculus AB followed by AP Stats, and then has to take more calculus in college, it will be two years at that point from their having taken AB.  Their retention of both calculus and statistics will end up being poor by that time.

For prospective science majors, especially physics, engineering, and chemistry majors, it is better to concentrate on calculus AB/BC in high school than to take AP Stats.  Take statistics in college when it is a real math class instead of a technique memorization class.

The exception to the above advice would be for someone in high school who does not take calculus.  AP Stats is often the choice that schools recommend for those who did not do so well in precalculus, but still did better than those students who are advised to take Aragon’s Finite class.  (I still believe that Aragon could offer a better option than Stats versus Finite though.)

If a student has no intention of majoring in science or math in college and their prospective college will not require them to take calculus, then I would agree that AP Stats is a good choice in high school. However, I would still advise prospective students and their parents to read my Stats article to understand what they will encounter in the class before signing up.

AP Statistics is not a “walk in the park” that will allow one to slack off senior year!

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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