Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education


Raising academic achievement levels for all students is a top priority for education reform at all levels across the United States. In mathematics and science, improvements in the performance of U.S. elementary and secondary students have been uneven. In mathematics, achievement on NAEP rose from 1990 to 2003 among 4th and 8th graders and from 1990 to 2000 for 12th graders. The mathematics gains occurred in many demographic subgroups. In science, between 1996 and 2000, the average scores changed little at the 4th and 8th grade levels and declined at the 12th grade level.

The proportion of students reaching the proficient achievement level (which is based on judgments of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level) raises additional concerns. In both mathematics and science, most 4th, 8th, and 12th graders did not demonstrate proficiency in the knowledge and skills taught at their grade level. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds lagged behind their more advantaged peers with these disparities starting as early as kindergarten, persisting across grades, and, for some kinds of skills, widening over time.

International assessments also yielded both encouraging and discouraging results. Although U.S. students performed above the international average on the TIMSS tests (which evaluate mastery of curriculum-based knowledge and skills), they performed below the international average on the PISA tests (which assess their ability to apply mathematics and science). However, the number and type of participating countries differed between the two assessments. Furthermore, despite showing some improvement in mathematics and science performance in recent years, U.S. students continued to lag behind their peers in many other developed countries.

Many factors influence student performance, either directly or indirectly. Access to challenging courses, qualified and experienced teachers, school environments that support learning and teaching, and opportunities for using computers and the Internet are all important factors. Educational policies on curriculum standards, testing and accountability, and instructional materials also help define the broad learning context, and their practical effects on curriculum, teaching methods, and learning materials all shape the experiences of teachers and students. Looking at these and other factors affecting education provides a context for the student achievement results reported here.

  • Course offerings. Access to advanced mathematics courses has increased since 1990, and access to advanced science courses remained nearly universal. In 2000, most high school students had access to advanced mathematics courses, such as trigonometry or algebra III, precalculus, and calculus, and virtually all students had access to advanced science courses such as chemistry, physics, and advanced biology. For most students, however, a significant gap separates current high school graduation requirements from the skill levels needed to succeed in college and to prepare for family-sustaining jobs. Also, despite overall availability of advanced course offerings, access varied by school characteristics. Students attending urban or suburban schools, large schools, or low-poverty schools were generally more likely to be offered advanced mathematics and science courses than those attending rural schools, smaller schools, or high-poverty schools.

  • Coursetaking. High school students increased their advanced coursetaking in mathematics and science throughout the 1990s, but despite this increase, overall participation in advanced courses remained relatively modest. In 2000, the proportion of high school graduates completing various advanced mathematics courses was 27% or lower, and the proportion completing advanced science courses ranged from 33% for physics and 36% for advanced biology to 63% for chemistry. Even such moderate levels may overstate participation in advanced coursetaking because the definition of advanced used in this report sets a minimal bar: courses that not all Students complete and are not widely required for graduation. Some courses included in certain categories may not meet other definitions of advanced that are based on the content and skills they require.

  • Advanced coursetaking differed by school and student characteristics. Students from rural, smaller, or high- poverty schools were less likely to take advanced mathematics and science courses. Although males and females were equally likely to take advanced mathematics courses, females were more likely to take chemistry and advanced biology courses and males more likely to take physics courses. Asians/Pacific Islanders were generally more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to take advanced mathematics and science courses.

  • Participation in AP programs. The number of students taking AP tests has grown rapidly since 1990, both overall and specifically in mathematics and science subjects. Female AP test takers were less likely than their male counterparts to earn passing scores, which allow students to earn college credits. Blacks and Hispanics were also less likely than their Asian/Pacific Islander and white peers to earn passing scores.

  • Teacher quality. College graduates entering the teaching profession tended to have somewhat lower academic skills, as evidenced by their lower rates of participation in rigorous academic courses in high school, lower scores on high school senior achievement tests and college entrance examinations, and lower rates of attending and graduating from selective colleges. Although virtually all mathematics and science teachers held a bachelor's degree and teaching certification, many, particularly those in the highschool grades, were teaching subjects for which they had little academic preparation. This so-called out-of-field teaching, measured as teachers lacking either a certificate or a college major or minor in their assigned teaching field, was prevalent in many states and appeared to be increasing over time.

  • Teacher attrition and working conditions. About 7%–9% of public school mathematics and science teachers left the teaching profession between the 1999 and 2000 academic years. Among those who left, one-third did so for a job outside the field of education, and many of those found more satisfaction with their new job than with teaching. Although some mathematics and science teachers left to pursue more lucrative career opportunities outside education, others left because of poor working conditions in their schools. Data indicate that compared with those who stayed, mathematics and science leavers were less satisfied with teaching in their former schools and expressed less positive views about various aspects of working conditions. These findings suggest that the school environment may play a role in teachers' decisions to leave the profession.

  • Access to and use of IT. Access to computers and the Internet has become more widespread both at school and at home. Home computer ownership and Internet access continue to differ by family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity, although these gaps are narrowing over the long term. The rapid growth in access to computers and the Internet at school have helped equalize access for disadvantaged students. Most students, especially at the secondary level, used home computers and the Internet for schoolwork, although playing games was also a common activity. About 62% of third grade teachers indicated in 2002 that they felt adequately prepared to use computers for instruction. Third grade teachers' confidence in their IT skills was related to how frequently they assigned their students to use computers and access the Internet.

  • Participation in postsecondary education. Increasing proportions of students continue their education immediately after high school, but gaps persist among student subpopulations. The gender gap was relatively small and favored females starting in the late 1980s, but gaps by race/ethnicity and family income continued to be large, with lower rates for black and Hispanic students and those from low-income families.

  • Remediation in college. Despite the rising participation in AP programs and advanced coursetaking, many college freshmen were not ready for college-level work and needed remedial assistance (particularly in mathematics) after their transition to college. Among freshmen taking remedial courses, most spent less than a year in remediation, but trends indicate increases in the average length of time spent. It is possible that the rising immediate college enrollment rate is partially responsible for the increased need for remediation among college freshmen.

The indicators presented in this chapter provide an overview of the conditions of U.S. mathematics and science education. The results show both improvement and weaknesses in its various aspects. The tasks of encouraging students to take more rigorous academic courses, improving the overall quality of the teaching force, and creating better working environments for both students and teachers will remain a critical challenge as the nation seeks to improve the achievement of all students.

National Science Board.