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Indicators 2002
Introduction Overview Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Workforce Chapter 4: U.S. and International Research and Development: Funds and Alliances Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development Chapter 6: Industry, Technology, and the Global Marketplace Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding Chapter 8: Significance of Information Technology Appendix Tables
Chapter Contents:
How Well Do Our Students Perform Mathematics and Science?
Science and Mathematics Coursework
Content Standards and Statewide Assessments
Curriculum and Instruction
Teacher Quality and Changes in Initial Teacher Training
Teacher Professional Development
Teacher Working Conditions
IT in Schools
Transition to Higher Education
Selected Bibliography
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

Click for Figure 1-7
Figure 1-7

Click for Figure 1-8
Figure 1-8

Elementary and Secondary Education

Science and Mathematics Coursework

Changes in State-Level Graduation Requirements
Differences in Course Participation by Sex
Differences in Course Participation by Race/Ethnicity
Impact of Coursetaking on Student Learning

Concerns about both the content and lack of focus of the U.S. mathematics and science curriculum, both as it is stated in state-level curricular frameworks and how it is implemented in the classroom, have appeared in major studies since the early 1980s (NCES 2000d.) In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded that the curricular "smorgasbord" then offered in American schools combined with extensive student choice explained a great deal of the low performance of U.S. students (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983.)

Since the publication of A Nation At Risk nearly 20 years ago, most states have increased the number of mathematics and science courses required for high school graduation as a way to address this concern. A number of states and districts have also implemented "systemic" or "standards-based" reform efforts in order to align curricular content with student testing and teacher professional development. (See sidebar, "The NGA Perspective on Systemic, Standards-Based Reform".) This section examines state-level changes in curricular requirements, as well as changes in student course-taking patterns. While the impact of these changes on student performance is uncertain, it is clear that more students are taking advanced mathematics and science courses than they were two decades ago.

Changes in State-Level Graduation Requirements top of page

As of 2000, 25 states required at least 2.5 years of math and 20 states required 2.5 years of science; in 1987, only 12 states required that many courses in math and only 6 states required that many courses in science. A survey of states conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in 2000 showed the following state totals for required credits in mathematics and science (CCSSO 2000a):

  • Twenty-one states required between 2.5 and 3.5 credits of mathematics and four states required four credits.

  • Sixteen states required between 2.5 and 3.5 credits of science and four states required four credits.

  • Five states left graduation requirements to local districts.

The National Education Commission on Time and Learning (NECTL) cites research indicating positive effects of strengthened graduation requirements. As schools offered more academic courses, particularly in mathematics and science, more students, including minority and at-risk students, actually enrolled in the courses (National Education Commission on Time and Learning 1994.) Data from high school transcripts collected by NCES support this finding. Students took more advanced science and mathematics courses in 1998 than did students who graduated in the early 1980s (NCES 2001c.) In 1998, almost all graduating seniors (93 percent) had taken biology, and more than one-half (60 percent) had taken chemistry. (See figure 1-7 figure and text table 1-5 text table.) In comparison, 77 percent of 1982 seniors had completed biology and 32 percent had completed chemistry. In the class of 1998, more than one-quarter (29 percent) of graduates had completed physics compared with 15 percent of 1982 graduates. Participation rates in AP or honors science courses are considerably lower: 16 percent for biology, 5 percent for chemistry, and 3 percent for physics (NCES 2001c.)

In 1998, more graduating students had taken advanced mathematics courses than did their counterparts in the early 1980s (see figure 1-7 figure.) In 1998, 62 percent of students had taken algebra II compared with 40 percent in 1982. The 1998 participation rates for geometry and calculus were 75 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Corresponding figures for 1982 were 47 percent in geometry and 5 percent in calculus. The percentage of graduates taking AP calculus rose from 1.6 to 6.7 percent over the same period (NCES 2001c.)

From 1982 to 1998, there was a corresponding decrease in the percentage of graduates who took lower level mathematics courses. For example, the average number of Carnegie units in mathematics earned by graduates increased from 2.6 to 3.4 between 1982 and 1998, but the average number of units earned in courses at a lower level than algebra declined from 0.90 to 0.67 (NCES 2001c.)[6]

Differences in Course Participation by Sex top of page

Given the established association between courses taken in high school and later educational outcomes (J. Smith 1996; Sells 1978), the lower representation of females throughout the science, mathematics, and engineering pipeline has been cause for concern. Therefore, there has long been an interest in tracking sex differences in the patterns of advanced mathematics and science courses taken in high school.

Both female and male students are following a more rigorous curriculum than they were two decades ago, and female graduates in 1998 were more likely than males (58 versus 53 percent) to have completed the "New Basics" curriculum, composed of four units of English and three units each of science, social studies, and mathematics, as recommended in A Nation At Risk (NCES 2000b.) Comparison of the transcripts of high school graduates indicates that female and male students have broadly similar coursetaking patterns, although there are some differences. Female students are as likely as males to take advanced math and science courses but are more likely to study a foreign language. Between 1982 and 1992, the percentage of both female and male graduates who took advanced mathematics and science courses in high school increased, although for many subjects parity between the sexes had been attained by 1982 (NCES 2000b.) In the class of 1998, females were less likely than males to take remedial mathematics in high school but at least as likely as their male peers to take upper level mathematics courses such as algebra II, trigonometry, precalculus, and calculus. (See figure 1-8 figure and text table 1-5 text table.) With respect to science, females were more likely than males to take biology and chemistry. Females have continued, however, to be less likely than males to take physics (NCES 2000b.)

Research has shown that once females begin science courses, they are taught similar amounts of science and receive grades similar to (or better than) those of their male counterparts (Hanson, Schaub, and Baker 1996; Baker and Jones 1993; DeBoer 1984.)

Differences in Course Participation by Race/Ethnicity top of page

Students from racial/ethnic groups that are typically underrepresented in science have made substantial gains in both the total number of academic courses taken in high school and in the number of advanced mathematics and science courses taken, although the range in coursetaking patterns remains wide. The emphasis on academic coursetaking is reflected by the increase in the percentage of high school graduates in all racial/ethnic groups taking the "New Basics" curriculum. The proportion of 1998 high school graduates who took this core curriculum ranged from about 40 percent for Hispanics and American Indians/Alaskan Natives, to 56 percent for blacks and whites, to 66 percent for Asians/Pacific Islanders. This is a substantial increase from 1982, when only 14 percent of graduates took this stringent curriculum (NCES 2001c.)

Students in all racial and ethnic groups are taking more advanced mathematics and science courses, although black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native graduates still lag behind their Asian/Pacific Islander and white counterparts in advanced mathematics and science coursetaking. For example, the percentage of graduates in the class of 1998 who had taken algebra II ranged from 47 percent of American Indians/ Alaskan Natives to 70 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders. Percentages for white, black, and Hispanic graduates were 65, 56, and 48 percent, respectively. (See text table 1-5 text table.) Furthermore, Asians/Pacific Islanders were a third more likely than whites to take calculus (18 versus 12 percent) and approximately three times more likely than blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives (about 6 percent each). Also, although 46 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander graduates took physics in high school, blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives were less than half as likely to do so (NCES 2001c.) From a coursetaking perspective at least, it appears that all racial and ethnic groups are better prepared for college today than they were in the early 1980s, although blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives are less prepared than their Asian/Pacific Islander and white peers.

Both prior achievement and peer choices appear to strongly influence coursetaking in high school. Although some researchers have found that minority and low socioeconomic status (SES) students are more likely to be assigned to lower curriculum tracks in high school, even after ability is held constant (Oakes 1985; Rosenbaum 1980, 1976), others have found that verbal achievement scores and the expectations and guidance of others (parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and peers) are influenced by race and SES and that these mediating variables then influence track placement (Cicourel and Kituse 1963; Rosenbaum 1976; Erickson 1975; Heyns 1974.) Fordham and Ogbu (1986) argue that one major reason black students do poorly in school is that they experience inordinate ambivalence and affective dissonance with regard to academic effort and success. They argue that because of these social pressures, many black students who are academically able do not muster the necessary perseverance in their schoolwork. (See sidebar, "Advanced Placement Test Results.")

Impact of Coursetaking on Student Learning top of page

On balance, it appears to be too early to draw general conclusions about the quality of either the new courses required in state-level curriculums or the advanced mathematics and science courses that more and more students are taking. Studies of "dilution" of course content are mixed and not uniform across all students. Moreover, many of these studies were conducted in only a handful of states and school districts and for only a handful of courses, with the earlier studies having been conducted not long after the increased requirements were enforced. Thus, there may have been little opportunity for revisions and improvement.

Several studies point to possible negative effects of stronger coursetaking requirements. For example, minority and at-risk students failed more courses than they did before stronger mandates were put into practice (NECTL 1994.) Opinions differ on the quality of the additional courses taken, especially those taken by low-achieving students. There has been particular concern about the quality of new mathematics courses designed for low achievers, who, under a traditional curriculum, would have taken general or basic mathematics. Research suggests that implementation of state-level mandates for stronger coursetaking requirements varies greatly across districts and schools. Studying 18 high schools in 12 districts in 6 states, Porter, Smithson, and Osthoff (1994) found some schools pushing students into demanding content in higher level course while others did not. Furthermore, Gamoran (1997) found that bridging courses, those designed to prepare lower achieving students for college-preparatory courses, achieved some success in improving student achievement. Research in this area is inadequate, however, for evaluating whether or not the increase in state-level curricular requirements have changed the level of difficulty or quality of mathematics and science courses offered to students.

Additional studies accessing the content of the mathematics curriculum, as well the quality of 8th grade mathematics instruction, are described in the section on Curriculum and Instruction. Strengthening course-taking requirements is only one component of most educational reform strategies, however. The next section examines states’ attempts to implement state-wide curricular frameworks, as well as assessments of the underlying content.


[6]  The Carnegie unit is a standard of measurement that represents one unit of credit for the completion of a one-year course.

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