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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 1:
Student Performance in Mathematics and Science
Mathematics and Science Coursework and Student Achievement
Curriculum Standards and Statewide Assessments
Curriculum and Instruction
Teacher Quality
Teacher Induction, Professional Development, and Working Conditions
Information Technology in Schools
Transition to Higher Education

Elementary and Secondary Education

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The United States has recorded some improvement in student mathematics and science achievement since the 1970s. But gains have been modest and were mostly achieved before the 1990s. Students are taking more advanced course-work than in the past, and more students are going on to higher education than in earlier decades.

However, compared with students in other countries, U.S. students are not achieving at high levels, and U.S. students fare worse in international comparisons at higher grade levels than at lower grade levels. Several other developed countries appear to be producing better qualified cohorts of high school graduates and sending as many or more of them on to higher education.

Achievement differences between male and female students have largely disappeared, especially in mathematics. However, substantial gaps persist among different racial/ethnic and income groups. Blacks and Hispanics are achieving at lower levels than whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders, and students in high-poverty schools are doing worse than their peers in low-poverty schools. Coursetaking patterns parallel these achievement patterns, although with greater disparities in some fields (e.g., physical sciences) and smaller ones in others (e.g., advanced biology). Higher proportions of blacks are going on to college than in the past, and the difference between blacks and whites in this respect has narrowed somewhat. But the same is not true for Hispanics.

Schools that serve students from different racial, ethnic, and income groups provide students with differing access to educational resources. Access to challenging courses, qualified and experienced teachers, good learning environments, and learning opportunities that make use of computers and the Internet is unequally distributed, but more so in some respects than in others:

  • Course availability. Differences in access to some mathematics and science courses are modest. High schools with high proportions of low-income students are comparable to other schools in the percentages offering courses in advanced biology, chemistry, and trigonometry/algebra III. Wider gaps exist for physics, but all of these courses are almost universally accessible in U.S. public high schools. However, AP courses are more widely available in high schools with very low proportions of low-income students, and the availability of certain specialized mathematics courses is negatively associated with the percentage of low-income students.

  • Out-of-field teachers. The extent of inequalities in exposure to out-of-field teachers depends on how out of field is defined and measured. Using a broad definition of out of field (lacking a college major or minor in either the field taught or one of several closely related fields) yields marginal but consistent differences between schools with high and low percentages of low-income or minority students: students in high poverty or high minority schools are slightly more likely to have out-of-field teachers. Using a narrow concept of out of field (lacking a major in the subject taught) yields no substantial difference between schools with different percentages of minority students. Likewise, students taking mathematics and biology/ life science courses have similar chances of encountering teachers who did not major in these subjects regardless of their school's poverty level. The same is not true for physical science students, however, where school poverty is associated with out-of-field teaching. One of the most striking differences in teacher qualifications is that fewer students in heavily minority or low-income schools had mathematics or science teachers who majored in mathematics or science education; although critics have questioned the value of these types of credentials, they appear to be more common in schools with more advantaged students.

  • New teachers. The percentage of inexperienced mathematics teachers does not vary with school poverty or minority enrollment, but the percentage of inexperienced science teachers does. New mathematics and science teachers in schools with large percentages of students from low-income or minority families had substantially less practice teaching experience before taking on their assignments. Science teachers in these schools were also substantially less likely to participate in an induction program, but only relatively modest differences existed for mathematics teachers. In both subjects, the proportion of teachers who had worked with a mentor did not vary substantially with a school's minority or low-income enrollment.

  • Learning environment. Teachers had more favorable perceptions of the learning environment in high schools with fewer low-income and minority students. Differences in perceptions varied in size: they were small for questions about administrative practices, larger for questions about available teaching materials and student apathy and disrespect, and largest for questions about parental involvement and student attendance.

  • IT access. In recent years, IT has rapidly become more available in public schools. Disparities by race/ethnicity and income are much smaller for computer access than for Internet access. Access at home is much more unequally distributed than access at school.

As a result of reform efforts begun in the 1980s and continuing most recently with the NCLB Act, changes are occurring in mathematics and science education. Increasing numbers of states are developing and implementing standards, states and school districts are increasing graduation requirements, and students are being offered (and are taking) more advanced courses. In addition, educators and policymakers are paying increasing attention to teacher professional development and to taking advantage of computers and the Internet in instruction. The NCLB Act has introduced new levels of accountability, requiring schools to demonstrate improvement for all students or face sanctions, thus raising the stakes for all involved.

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