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Introduction Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education Chapter 2: Undergraduate Enrollment Chapter 3: Undergraduate Degrees Chapter 4: Graduate Enrollment Chapter 5: Graduate Degrees Chapter 6: Employment Technical Notes Appendix Tables
Chapter Contents:
Differences in coursetaking and achievement
Factors related to coursetaking and achievement
High school completion
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

Precollege Education

Factors related to coursetaking and achievement

School characteristics
Student characteristics
National, state, and district policies

School characteristics (such as courses offered and teacher education and experience), student characteristics (such as family income), and mathematics and science coursetaking are all correlates of academic achievement (U.S. ED/NCES 2000c). In addition, national, state, and school district policies regarding teacher qualifications and curricula vary, resulting in differences in access to high-quality teachers and higher level mathematics and science courses.

School characteristics  top of page

The type and amount of school resources devoted to instruction contribute to the quality of science and mathematics education. School characteristics that correlate with student achievement include availability and quality of science and mathematics courses, availability and use of technology, and access to qualified teachers (U.S. ED/NCES 1995 and 1998c, Oakes 1990, and Weiss 1994).

Availability of AP and advanced math and science courses

Students who take advanced mathematics and science courses, including advanced placement (AP) courses,[4] in high school are more likely than those who do not to major in science and engineering in college (U.S. ED/NCES 2000b). However, such advanced courses are not available in all high schools. In 2000, only about 60 percent of the nearly 22,000 high schools (both public and private) in the United States offered AP courses (College Board 2000).

Availability—or rather, the unavailability—of AP courses may be an issue for certain racial/ethnic groups. Although the availability of AP courses has increased over time nationwide, not all schools in a given state participate in the program. States where less than half of the schools participate in the program are mainly in the mountain and west north central regions of the United States. These states—Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—have low concentrations of underrepresented minority students.[5] Additionally, there are a number of states in the South where less than half of the schools participate in the AP program. These states—Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—have high concentrations of underrepresented minority students (College Board 2000).

Availability and use of technology

The availability of computers in the classroom increased over the past decade. Nearly all public school teachers reported in 1999 that at least one computer was available somewhere in their school, and more than 80 percent reported that they had computers available in their classrooms (U.S. ED/NCES 2000d). Computer usage is related to mathematics achievement. Seventeen-year-old students who said they had access to computers in the classroom scored higher on the 1999 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term mathematics assessment[6] than did their peers who said they did not have access. Furthermore, students who had used a computer to solve mathematics problems scored higher than those who said they had never done this (U.S. ED/NCES 2000b).

Access to technology is more of a given for white students than for minority students.[7] Teachers in schools with 50 percent or more minority students were generally less likely than those in schools with minority enrollment of 20 percent or less to have access to the Internet in the classroom, and to use computers or the Internet for a wide range of teacher and student activities—for example, for student Internet research and in gathering information for lesson plans. Teachers in schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment also were more likely to report that they had outdated, incompatible, or unreliable computers than those in schools with less than 6 percent minority enrollment. (See appendix table 1-9.)

Technology in the classroom can influence the instruction of students with disabilities. The very presence of a personal computer or Internet access, or such telecommunications advances as closed captioning in video media, can enable students with disabilities to communicate and participate in classroom activities on a more equal basis with students who do not have disabilities. Moreover, efforts to increase accessibility for persons with disabilities often increase accessibility for others as well. For example, closed captioning—originally implemented for people who are deaf—is now being used by people learning English as a second language (NRC 1997).

Not all of these advances, however, are accessible by all people in all situations. The National Center for Education Statistics (1997a) cites numerous barriers to more widespread use of advanced telecommunications by students with disabilities, including:

  • Insufficiently trained special education teachers (cited by 47 percent of public schools surveyed)
  • Inadequate evaluation and support services to meet the special technology needs of students (39 percent)
  • Insufficient number of computers with alternative input/output devices (38 percent)
  • Insufficient number of computers available to students with disabilities (34 percent)

Teacher qualifications

Teacher quality, as measured by their preparation and qualifications, is one of the strongest correlates of student achievement, including mathematics achievement (Darling-Hammond 1999, Sanders and Rivers 1996). Access to highly qualified teachers in science and math varies by race/ethnicity. Higher student test scores are associated with teachers with bachelor's or master's degrees in the subjects they teach (Goldhaber and Brewer 1997) and with teachers who majored or minored in the relevant subject (Wenglinsky 2000); this is particularly true in science and mathematics.

Many states, however, are having difficulty in finding and recruiting adequately prepared teachers; consequently, they are hiring and granting provisional certification to teachers without adequate preparation in the subjects they are assigned to teach. Many who teach mathematics and science are not adequately prepared in those subjects, and a large proportion of those who are not adequately prepared can be found in schools with large numbers of minority students (CAWMSET 2000).

Minority students are less likely to have teachers with master's degrees, less likely to have teachers in math or science courses who are trained or certified in math or science respectively, and less likely to have experienced teachers than are white students. Teachers at schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment in 1998 were less likely to have a master's degree than teachers at schools with low (5 percent or less) minority enrollment (U.S. ED/NCES 1999b). Further, mathematics teachers in public secondary schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment were less likely than those in schools with less than 10 percent minority enrollment to have majored in mathematics and less likely to be certified in mathematics (U.S. ED/NCES 1998a). Schools in the top quartile for high concentrations of minority students were more likely than those with lower concentrations to have teachers with 3 or fewer years of experience: 21 percent of teachers in schools with high minority enrollment had 3 or fewer years of experience versus 10 percent of those in schools with low minority enrollment (U.S. ED/NCES 2001b).

Although state and district policies in the United States differ greatly on standards for teacher education and certification,[8] teachers in schools with high minority enrollment are as likely to be certified as those in schools with low minority enrollment. Teachers at schools with 50 percent or more minority enrollment in 1998 were as likely to have regular or standard state certificates or advanced professional certificates as teachers at schools with low minority enrollment (U.S. ED/NCES 1999b).

Relatively few full-time public school teachers feel very well prepared to address the needs of minority students or students with disabilities. In 1998, 20 percent of teachers of such students reported that they felt "very well prepared" to address the needs of students with limited English proficiency or from diverse cultural backgrounds; 21 percent felt very well prepared to address the needs of students with disabilities.[9] Among those whose primary teaching assignment was math or science, relatively few felt very well prepared to address special student needs: of those teaching such students, 13 percent reported feeling very well prepared to address the needs of students with limited English proficiency or from student populations with diverse cultural backgrounds, and 19 percent felt very well prepared to address the needs of students with disabilities (U.S. ED/NCES 1999b).[10]

Student characteristics  top of page

Family income and parents' education

Socioeconomic status (parental occupation, education, and income) is highly correlated with mathematics achievement (Ekstrom, Goertz, and Rock 1988; U.S. ED/NCES 1997b). In 1996, students in grades 4, 8, and 12 whose parents had less than a high school education scored lower on the NAEP science and mathematics assessments than did students whose parents had higher levels of education. Similarly, those students eligible for the free or reduced price lunch program (an indicator of parental income) scored lower than those not eligible (U.S. ED/NCES 1996b).

Black and Hispanic students are more likely than white or Asian students to come from low-income families. In 1998, more than half (52 percent) of Hispanic students and almost half (48 percent) of black students aged 3 to 17 had annual family incomes of less than $25,000.[11] In contrast, just 17 percent of white students and 22 percent of Asian students had annual family incomes of less than $25,000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1999).[12]

Differences in parental education and family income are not the only factors that relate to the racial/ethnic differences in test scores, however (Jencks and Phillips 1998). For example, the 1996 grade 8 mathematics and science scores of black and Hispanic students lagged those of whites and Asians even among students whose parents graduated from college. (See appendix table 1-13.)

Attitudes toward science and mathematics

Differing attitudes toward science and mathematics and different perceptions about their performance in these subjects are evinced by members of both sexes and members of different racial/ethnic groups. One factor in the differences between male and female students in science and mathematics achievement may be these differences in attitude. Females generally have less positive attitudes toward science and math than do males. (See figure 1-2 figure.) In 2000, female 4th and 12th graders were less likely than their male counterparts to agree with the statement "I like mathematics" (an indicator of their attitudes about mathematics). In grades 4, 8, and 12, females were less likely than males to agree with the statement "I like science." And among students in all three grades, females were less positive than males regarding their mathematics and science performance: specifically, they were less likely than males to agree with the statements "I am good at mathematics" and "I am good at science." (See appendix tables 1-14 and 1-15.)

Black and Asian students generally say they like mathematics more than do white students. In 2000, black 4th and 8th graders and Asian 8th and 12th graders were more likely than their white counterparts to agree with the statement "I like mathematics." In 8th and 12th grades, Asian students were more likely than students in most other minority groups to agree with the statement "I am good at mathematics."

In 2000, the various racial/ethnic groups were similar in liking science in grade 4. Among 8th and 12th graders, black and white students—and among 12th graders, Asian students—were more likely than Hispanic students to like science. At all three grade levels, Hispanics were less likely than whites and blacks to think that they were good at science.

National, state, and district policies  top of page


In the United States, the bulk of public education is funded through local taxes and bonds. Funding thus varies widely from one school district to another depending on the wealth of the community. Although there is much debate about the relationship between school funding and student achievement, most recent research indicates that, although total expenditures per pupil may have little effect on achievement, the additional school resources devoted to student instruction that are made possible by better funding may in fact have sizable effects on achievement (Jencks and Phillips 1998).

Curricular requirements

States vary widely in the specific mathematics and science courses they require for graduation.[13] Roughly half of all states do not have any requirements at all for specific math or science courses. Most have requirements for a specified number of courses. In 2000, 24 states required between 2.5 and 4.0 credits of mathematics, and 19 states required between 2.5 and 4.0 credits of science (CCSSO 2000). Differences in curricular requirements, though, are not likely to account for racial/ethnic differences in achievement. In the 1993/94 school year, public school districts with high (50 percent or more) minority enrollment were more likely than districts with low (less than 5 percent) minority enrollment to have graduation requirements that met or exceeded the National Commission on Excellence in Education's recommendations of 3 years of mathematics and 3 years of science (U.S. ED/NCES 1998a).

Classroom placement

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (Public Law 105-17) mandates that students with disabilities be educated with those who do not have disabilities to the maximum appropriate extent. Students with disabilities may be served in regular classrooms and be provided with special services via a resource room or may receive instruction at a variety of special sites. The reasoning behind this mandate is that special education students who spend more time in regular education and vocational classes have greater access to the general education curriculum, higher expectations for performance, and more positive school outcomes (U.S. Department of Education 1996, 1997).

From 1990 to 1998, the proportion of students with disabilities who were served in regular classrooms for most of the school day increased. (See figure 1-3 figure.) In the 1997/98 school year, 46 percent of all students receiving special education services were served outside the regular classroom less than 21 percent of the day (up from 32 percent in 1989/90). Another 29 percent were served outside the regular classroom for 21 to 60 percent of the day, (down from 38 percent). The percentage served outside the regular classroom for more than 60 percent of the day decreased from 25 percent in 1989/90 to 20 percent in 1997/98. (See appendix table 1-16.)

Placement patterns vary by the 12 disability categories defined by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Students with speech or language impairments are most likely to attend regular classes in a regular school facility: 88 percent were in a regular school and outside the regular classroom less than 21 percent of the day in the 1998/99 school year. Students with mental retardation, autism, multiple disabilities, hearing impairment, serious emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, or deaf-blindness spend more time outside the regular classroom in a regular school and are more likely to be served in separate or residential facilities. (See appendix table 1-17.)

Ability grouping

Most elementary schools in the United States use ability grouping for reading classes, and most high schools group students by curricular tracks—academic (college preparatory, honors, AP), general, and vocational. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be in general and vocational tracks (Oakes 1990, Ferguson 1998). Grouping students by ability level is more prevalent in mathematics than in science and more prevalent in grades 9 to 12 than in the lower grades. In both science and mathematics, classes with a high proportion of minority students are more likely to be labeled "low-ability" classes than are those with a low proportion of minority students (Weiss 1994).

Standards-based reform

In recent years, many states have adopted standards-based reforms in elementary and secondary education. These reforms focus on setting high standards for student performance and judging students, teachers, or schools on the basis of their achievement of the standards. The 1994 reauthorization of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which provides funds to schools for educating disadvantaged students) requires states to develop standards for student performance and assessments that measure performance against these standards (Elmore and Rothman 1999). It also requires that these standards and assessments apply to all students. Few states, however, specifically include students with disabilities in their standards. Among the 47 states with standards, 34 did not specify whether the standards apply to students with disabilities, 4 specified that the standards apply to all students and that "all" specifically includes students with disabilities, and another 9 specified that students with disabilities are included and that accommodations should be made to allow students the opportunity to achieve the standards (Thurlow et al. 1998).

As part of standards-based reform, many states have developed their own assessments. These may be used in decisions involving tracking, promotion, and graduation. When these assessments adequately measure student performance against valid and relevant educational standards, they can promote learning; in the absence of access to a high-quality curriculum and instruction, however, they can actually promote group differences in educational outcomes (Heubert and Hauser 1998).

Students with disabilities are often excluded from assessments. At least half of all students with disabilities were excluded from the National Assessment of Educational Progress before 1995. State and local policies often excluded them from testing, school staff may have believed they were unable to participate fully, and/or no accommodations were made available that met the needs of their legally required Individualized Education Programs.[14] The 1996 NAEP science and mathematics assessments explored the effects of various mechanisms to increase the participation of students with disabilities in the national assessments. Rules for exclusion/inclusion were clarified, overall rules were changed to increase inclusiveness and the likelihood of consistent application, and accommodations were provided, including:

...provision of large-print booklets and large-face calculators, provision of Braille booklets and talking calculators, and accommodations in administration procedures (e.g., unlimited testing time, individual or small-group administrations, allowing a facilitator to read directions, allowing students to give answers orally, allowing students to give answers using a special mechanical apparatus) (U.S. ED/NCES 1996a, p. 5).

Changes in the inclusion criteria without provision of accommodations did not increase inclusion rates in the NAEP assessments; however, provision of accommodations did increase inclusion rates in grades 4 and 8 (U.S. ED/NCES 2000a). In the samples of students for whom accommodations were not made, the proportion of students assessed was 47 percent in grade 4 and 58 percent in grade 8. With accommodations, these proportions increased to 72 and 71 percent, respectively.


[4]  The AP program, sponsored by the College Board, consists of nationally standardized curricula in 32 subjects. Students can earn college credits by passing exams in these subjects.

[5]  These states do, however, have relatively large numbers of American Indian students.

[6]  The main NAEP assessment measures students' performance in a number of subjects, including mathematics and science, in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. It uses up-to-date subject frameworks and the latest in assessment methodology. A second NAEP assessment involves long-term trend assessment; this measures students' performance in mathematics, science, and reading at ages 9, 13, and 17 using the same procedures and questions that were instituted in the early 1970s. The data in this chapter generally refer to the main assessment.

[7]  Minority students include black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Asian students.

[8]  In some states, teachers are required to complete a bachelor's degree with a major in the subject area, take coursework in education, and complete 18 weeks of student teaching. In other states, teachers do not need even a minor in the subject area, take less coursework in education, and complete only 6 weeks of student teaching (Darling-Hammond 1999).

[9]  Thirty-three and 41 percent, respectively, felt moderately well prepared to address the needs of such students.

[10]  Twenty-eight and 40 percent, respectively, felt moderately well prepared.

[11]  Data are for the 50 states and District of Columbia only.

[12]  Comparable data for American Indians are not available from the Census's Current Population Survey because of small sample size.

[13]  See National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (2000) for data by state on academic preparation for higher education (high school completion; eighth grade achievement in mathematics, reading, and writing; SAT scores; and percentage passing AP examinations).

[14]  In accordance with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, every child with a disability must have a written Individualized Education Program prepared for him or her that is specifically tailored "to help the student be involved in, and progress in, the general curriculum" (U.S. Department of Education 2000a).

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