Whether it's noticing different-colored ladybugs or analyzing the cost of college, students in elementary through high school are using data to reveal patterns and reach decisions. Making predictions and conclusions based on data can also be a valuable life skill in navigating financial, social and lifestyle choices.
Statistics courses, however, have traditionally only been offered as a high school elective and are, in some places, considered an advanced course students can only take if they've completed other prerequisite math courses.
In 1990, just 1% of public and private high school students completed a statistics and probability class. By 2009, that number rose to 10.8%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And in 2019, 25% of 12th graders said they had taken a statistics or probability course in middle or high school, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress that year.
Education leaders in at least three states are now working to expand instruction in data analytics and the statistical problem-solving process, noting an understanding in statistical reasoning and data sciences are 21st century skills that will help students compete in the U.S. economy.
"If we take what we learn in mathematics and then apply it to statistics, we have really broadened our students to become not just mathematical thinkers, which we're pumped about," but to become statistical thinkers, said Kaycie Maddox, Northeast Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency director of 9-12 math. "That's what we're really interested in."
Becoming positive skeptics
In Georgia, the state department currently has statistics standards for grades 6-12 that emphasize applying mathematical concepts and skills to authentic problems. Statistical reasoning classes are optional for students who have completed certain algebra or geometry courses. The standards are being revised and will begin including expectations for statistics instruction for K-5.
"Humans are naturally curious beings and statistics is a language that can be used to better answer questions about personal choices and/or make sense of naturally occurring phenomena," the new standards said.
By bringing statistical understanding to elementary grades, teachers will be able to build upon the deeper understanding of data analysis as students progress in grades. For example, younger students would learn about mean as a fair share, such as when someone brings cookies to class and they need to be divided up equally. Middle and high school students would study variability and standard deviation in statistics-focused classes.
Elsewhere, California education leaders are proposing a new math framework that emphasizes the relevancy of statistics and data science. The Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative is considering a shift away from an emphasis on computation and routine problem practice in favor of reasoning and real-world problem solving. The Common Core State Standards Initiative also includes statistics and probability expectations for grades 6-8 and high school.
The changes in Georgia were guided by the Pre-K-12 Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education II, which is a framework for statistics and data science with approval from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and endorsement from the American Statistical Association. GAISE II was published in 2020 and follows GAISE I, which was released in 2005.
GAISE I focused on traditional data types of quantitative and categorical variables, and on study designs using small data sets of population samples. GAISE II promotes these same statistical constructs, but because data types and collections are more technology-based and accessible and can be highly structured or unstructured, there's a new emphasis on the statistical problem-solving process and on collecting, cleaning, interrogating and analyzing the data.
Donna LaLonde, director of strategic initiatives and outreach at ASA, said she's heard anecdotal stories about K-12 educators wanting to broaden statistical understanding in their math students. She also said science teachers, and perhaps English and social studies educators, see value in incorporating data sciences in their lessons as well.
Maddox said an understanding of statistics can help students make sense of the world around them.
"I think the term is being a healthy skeptic, maybe a positive skeptic, to where you're looking at the world around you," she said. "So we see that as such a need for all our students across the board."
Relevancy with real-life data
When Summer Abney began teaching a high school statistics course in 2005, she was surprised at how much she enjoyed it. She based lessons around real-life scenarios so classes were meaningful and practical for her and her students.
Now, she's an AP Statistics and Algebra II teacher at Morgan County High School in Madison, Georgia. Through the years, she's seen increased enrollment in statistics classes. She attributes this to the greater availability of data and the need to make data-informed decisions. She also said many career fields, including medical, sports, music and politics, now use statistics in business decisions.
The pedagogy of teaching statistics has also changed over the years to make problems and tasks more relevant and engaging for students. Abney, for example, has her students calculate the salaries of Major League Baseball players using different sample sizes. Another lesson analyzes racial bias in police stops.
"It works great because it turns on the discovery mode in students' brains rather than just having the teacher spoon-feed them the formula or the steps."
AP Statistics and Algebra II teacher in Madison, Georgia
This approach hooks students into the lesson, and their understanding is stronger because the tasks use real-life data, Abney said.
"It works great because it turns on the discovery mode in students' brains rather than just having the teacher spoon-feed them the formula or the steps," she said.
The emphasis on communication in group problem solving can be challenging for some students who are used to the more traditional math course of learning a formula and following a sequence of procedures to solve a problem, Abney said.
To prepare her students for that transition, her first assignment has no calculations but instead requires students to read, write and communicate with each other. For example, during the unit on sampling and experimental design, students learn about and discuss the pros and cons of various sampling methods and the advantages of using different types of experimental design methods.
Statistical literacy is a skill her students will use through their lifetimes, she said. "To have more of an awareness of what those things mean, I think is so important going forward."