Chapter 2:

Precollege Education

Influences on Mathematics and Science Achievement

Although gains have been made by women and minorities in mathematics and science achievement—as measured by elementary and secondary assessment test scores and by college entrance examinations—differences remain. These differences in achievement can then become a basis for unequal participation in further mathematics and science education, employment, and technological and science literacy. This section addresses factors that influence mathematics and science achievement—factors that account for both gains in achievement in some areas and persistent differences among groups in other areas. It should be noted that these factors influence the achievement of all students, regardless of sex, race/ethnicity, or disability status.

Mathematics and Science Course Taking top

A primary factor contributing to mathematics and science achievement is mathematics and science course taking. Both the number and type of courses taken are positively related to achievement (Oakes, 1990; Peng, Wright, and Hill, 1995). One of the factors contributing to the increase in science and mathematics achievement test scores (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress discussed on page 15) over time could be the increase in science and mathematics course taking (NSB, 1996). Differences in course taking by gender, race/ethnicity, and disability status, thus may contribute to differences among these groups in science and mathematics achievement.

Family Income and Education top

Differences in mathematics and science achievement are also related to differences in family income and parents’ education. Socioeconomic status (parental occupation, education, and income) accounts for a substantial amount of the differences in mathematics achievement (Ekstrom, Goertz, and Rock, 1988; Madigan, 1997). Students at grades 4, 8, and 12 whose parents had less than high school education scored lower in science and mathematics than 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 (Campbell et al., 1996). Poverty may explain some of the differences in females’ and males’ Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores: a higher proportion of women than men SAT and American College Testing (ACT) test takers are from low-income families. Poverty may also explain some of the racial/ethnic differences in achievement test scores: blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites and Asians to live in poverty. In 1995, poverty rates were 8.5 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 29.3 percent for blacks, 30.3 percent for Hispanics, and 14.6 percent for Asians (Baugher and Lamison-White, 1996). Further, children in poverty are more likely to have disabilities. Poverty is associated with health problems and learning disabilities: a higher proportion of children from low-income families than from higher income families are in special education because of developmental delays, learning disabilities, and emotional disturbances (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

School Characteristics top

School characteristics contributing to unequal participation in science and mathematics education include tracking, judgments about ability, number and quality of science and mathematics courses offered, access to qualified teachers, access to resources, curricula emphases (Oakes, 1990; Weiss, 1994; Madigan, 1997), and access to teachers and services that reduce language and cultural barriers (Laosa, 1997; Miller, 1997; Ponessa, 1997).

Lack of role models may also influence achievement. The proportion of minority (black, Hispanic, and Asian) students in elementary and secondary schools has increased in recent years from 28 percent in 1987–1988 to 32 percent in 1993–1994. (See appendix table 2-1.) In the 1993–1994 school year, black students constituted 16 percent; Hispanic students, 12 percent; and Asian students, 3 percent of all public and private elementary and secondary school students. The proportion of elementary and secondary teachers who are members of minority racial/ethnic groups was 12 percent in 1987–1988 and 13 percent in 1993–1994—still well below the proportion of minority students. (See figure 2-1 and appendix table 2-2.)

Classroom placement and accommodations are factors that influence the achievement of students with disabilities in addition to factors mentioned previously. Elementary and secondary students with disabilities have special needs that may hinder their ability to participate fully in science and mathematics instruction if accommodations are not made. Students with disabilities may be served in regular classrooms and be provided with special services via a resource room or receive instruction at a variety of special sites. Secondary students who spend more time in regular education and vocational classes have greater access to the general educational curriculum, higher expectations for performance, and more positive school outcomes (U.S. Department of Education, 1996 and 1997). During the past few years, the fraction of students served in regular classrooms has increased and the percentage served in resource rooms has decreased. (See figure 2-2.) In the 1993–1994 school year, 43 percent of all students receiving special education services were in regular classrooms (up from 29 percent in 1987–1988), 30 percent were in resource rooms, 23 percent in separate classes, 3 percent in separate schools, and less than 1 percent each in residential facilities or in homebound/hospital placements. (See appendix table 2-3.)

Placement patterns for students vary considerably depending on the type of disability. Students with speech and language impairments are most likely to attend regular classes: 88 percent are in regular classes. Students with learning disabilities, orthopedic impairments, serious emotional disturbance, and traumatic brain injury are more widely distributed in their placements within several settings—regular classes, resource rooms, and separate classes—within regular schools. (See appendix table 2-4.)

Technology in the classroom can also influence instruction of students with disabilities. Advances in technology (for example, closed captioning, personal computers, and Internet services) can allow students with disabilities to communicate and participate in classroom activities more on par with students who do not have disabilities. Efforts to increase accessibility to persons with disabilities often increases accessibility to others. For example, closed captioning, which was implemented for people who are deaf, is now being used by people learning English as a second language (National Research Council, 1997). Not all of these advances, however, will be accessible by all people in all situations.

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Differences in Student Access to Technology top

Students differ in their access to computer technology and in their use of computers, according to the report Computers and Classrooms (Coley, Cradler, and Engel, 1997). In general, students attending high-poverty and high-minority schools had less access to computer technology. These schools had fewer computers and multimedia computers per student than other schools and were less likely to have cable TV, access to the Internet, CD-ROM technology, and local area networks. Also, schools with high percentages of minorities were less likely to have satellite dishes. There were two exceptions to the general finding: high-poverty schools were more likely to have satellite dishes and the schools with low percentages of minority students were least likely to have videodisc players.[1] 

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) study reported several differences among students in their computer-related coursework or experience (based on a 1996 College Board report on SAT program test takers). Females were slightly more likely than males to have experience in word processing and to use a computer in their English courses. Females were less likely than males to have experience in computer literacy, using computers to solve mathematics problems, and taking courses in computer programming. Blacks and Hispanics were less likely than whites to have experience in word processing, computer literacy, using computers in their English courses, and using computers to solve mathematics problems. Asians were more likely to have taken courses in computer programming.

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[1] The data for access to the Internet are for fall 1996 and are reported in the NCES survey report: Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, Fall 1996, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, February 1997 (Heaviside, Riggins, and Farris, 1997). The rest are 1995–1996 data reported in Technology in Public Schools, 15th Edition. Installed Base Technology in U.S. Public Schools, Covering 1981–1996, 1997, Quality Education Data, Denver, CO (Quality Education Data, 1997).

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