Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education


Student Learning in Mathematics and Science

Improvements in U.S. student performance in mathematics and science have been uneven.

  • In mathematics, average scores on national assessments rose from 1990 to 2003 and gains occurred in many demographic subgroups.
  • In contrast, performance in science has not improved recently. Between 1996 and 2000, average science scores declined at grade 12 and remained the same at grades 4 and 8.
  • In both mathematics and science, most students did not reach the proficient performance level, a level denoting solid performance for their grade based on judgments of what students should know and be able to do in the subject assessed. In both subjects, only about one-third of 4th and 8th grade students, and even fewer 12th grade students, reached the proficient level.
Performance disparities in mathematics and science are evident among many student subgroups.
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds lagged behind, with these disparities starting as early as kindergarten, persisting across grades, and in some cases, widening over time.
  • Substantial performance differences were also found between racial/ethnic groups, and those gaps generally remained stable from 1990 to 2003 in mathematics and from 1996 to 2000 in science.
  • Sex differences were small but favored males in most cases.
International comparisons of mathematics and science performance present a mixed picture.
  • Between 1995 and 2003, U.S. eighth grade students improved their performance on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment, which measures mastery of curriculum-based knowledge and skills. However, scores of fourth graders generally remained flat over the same period. Both U.S. fourth and eighth grade students scored above the international average on the 2003 TIMSS, in which both developed and developing countries participated.
  • On the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which measure students' ability to apply scientific and mathematical concepts and skills, U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the international average. It is important to note that TIMSS and PISA differ in age of participating students, extent to which test questions are aligned with curriculum, and number and type of participating countries. Although countries participating in TIMSS included both developed and developing nations, the international averages for PISA are based on scores from the 30 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that participated, all of which are industrialized.

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Student Coursetaking in Mathematics and Science

Most 2000 U.S. high school graduates attended schools that offered advanced mathematics courses and nearly all had advanced science courses available at their schools.

  • However, students attending rural or small schools were less likely to have access to some of the advanced courses than those enrolled in urban/suburban or large schools, particularly in mathematics. (Students are described herein as having access to courses if the school from which they graduated offered the course, but in practice, students usually have access only to those courses for which they have prepared.)

The proportions of students completing courses in many advanced mathematics and science subjects have increased since 1990 but remain relatively modest except in chemistry.

  • The percentage of 2000 graduates who earned credits in advanced mathematics ranged from 6% for statistics/probability to 27% for precalculus.
  • In science, the proportions earning any credits in chemistry, advanced biology, and physics in high school were 63%, 36%, and 33%, respectively. These figures may still overstate participation in advanced coursetaking because the definition of advanced used for this chapter sets a minimal bar: courses that not all students complete and that are not widely required for graduation. Some of these courses (e.g., certain chemistry and physics courses) may not meet other definitions of advanced that are based on content and skills.

Coursetaking varies by sex and race/ethnicity.

  • In 2000, sex differences occurred in science coursetaking but not in mathematics. More females than males completed courses in advanced biology, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) biology, and chemistry. Males completed physics and AP/IB physics courses at higher rates than females.
  • Racial/ethnic differences existed in both mathematics and science coursetaking. Asians/Pacific Islanders were generally more likely than students from other racial/ethnic groups to complete advanced mathematics and science courses, and whites were more likely than blacks and Hispanics to complete some courses.

Since 1990, the number of students taking AP tests has grown rapidly in mathematics and science subjects.

  • Between 1990 and 2004, the number of students taking the Calculus AB Exam nearly tripled and the number taking Calculus BC increased nearly fourfold. In science, the number of students taking Physics C and Biology more than tripled, and those taking Physics B increased almost fivefold.

The majority of students who took AP tests received a passing score that would earn college credit, but gaps existed by sex and race/ethnicity.

  • Male test takers were more likely than their female counterparts to earn passing scores, as were Asians/Pacific Islanders and whites compared with their black and Hispanic peers.

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Mathematics and Science Teachers

College graduates who become teachers have somewhat lower academic skills on average than those who do not go into teaching.

  • College graduates who became teachers took fewer rigorous academic courses in high school, had lower scores on 12th grade achievement tests, scored lower on college entrance examinations, and graduated from less-selective colleges

Out-of-field teaching (as measured by either lacking a certificate or a college major or minor in the assigned teaching field) is common.

  • Nationally, between 17% and 28% of public high school mathematics and science teachers lacked full certification in their teaching field in academic year 2002 (the school year that began in fall 2002). Proportions for the middle grades were even higher.
  • Certification rates for high school mathematics and science teachers declined from 1990 to 2002. Certification rates for middle-level mathematics and science teachers increased in the mid-1990s but subsequently declined.
  • In academic year 1999, between 23% and 29% of public middle-grade and high school mathematics and science teachers did not have a college major or minor in their teaching field.

Many states have implemented policies to promote participation in teacher professional development and improve its quality.

  • By 2002, 48 states had required professional development for teacher license renewal, and 24 had adopted professional development policies aligned with state content standards. As of 2004, 37 states financed some professional development programs, 35 had standards in place for professional development, 27 provided professional development funds for all districts in the state, 16 required and financed mentoring programs for all novice teachers, and 13 required districts or schools to set aside teacher time for professional development.
  • However, professional development in many school districts in the late 1990s still consisted mainly of one-time workshops with little follow-up. Most teachers attended programs for only a few hours over the course of the school year, far below the minimum of 60 to 80 hours that some studies show as needed to bring about meaningful change in teaching behaviors

Inflation-adjusted U.S. public school teacher salaries increased only slightly between 1972 and 2002.

  • In 2002, the average salary of all public school K–12 teachers was $44,367, just about $2,598 above what it was in 1972 (after adjusting for inflation).

Dissatisfaction with working conditions was among the most common reasons mathematics and science teachers gave for deciding to change schools or leave the profession.

  • Public school mathematics and science teachers who changed schools were less likely than those who stayed to report satisfaction with job security, safety, community support, administrative support, and the amount of autonomy they had, among other factors.
  • Those who left the profession reported they did so to pursue another career, to get a better salary or benefits, or to retire. They also reported more satisfaction with their new nonteaching jobs than with teaching.

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Information Technology in Education

Access to computers and the Internet has grown rapidly both at school and at home.

  • The ratio of public school students to online school computers improved from 12:1 in 1998 to 4:1 in 2003.
  • In 2003, 77% of K–12 students lived in a household with a computer and 67% had Internet access at home.

Home computer ownership and Internet access continue to differ by family income, parental education, and race/ethnicity, but rapid growth in access to computers and the Internet in school has helped equalize access for disadvantaged students.

  • Students in high-income families were nearly three times more likely than those from low-income families to have home Internet access, 90% versus 32%.
  • Not only are overall use rates higher at school than at home, these differences are also more pronounced for less advantaged students. Low-income students, for example, were more than twice as likely to use a computer at school than at home in 2003, while high-income students used computers at only slightly different rates at the two locations.

Most third graders frequently use computers at school.

  • About 56% of third graders were given computer work at least three times weekly in 2002 and 22% were assigned Internet use at least three times a week.

From 1999 to 2002, the proportion of teachers who feel prepared to use computers in the classroom increased.

  • About two-thirds of all public school K–12 teachers surveyed in 1999 indicated that their preparation for using computers in instruction was inadequate. However, in 2002, more than 60% of third grade teachers said they felt prepared to use information technology (IT) in instruction and 75% overall reported being fairly comfortable using computers.

In 2000–01, most public school teachers reported participating in some professional development on using computers for instruction during the previous year.

  • Roughly half said they had trained on one or more of three topics: the mechanics of using IT, integrating computers into instructional activities, and using the Internet. However, such training tended to be brief rather than sustained.

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Transition to Higher Education

Increasing numbers of students are entering postsecondary education right after high school graduation.

  • Between 1973 and 2003, the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college in the fall following graduation grew from 47% to 64%, with increases occurring at both 2- and 4-year institutions. However, the trend began to flatten in the late 1990s.
  • Enrollment rates increased faster for females than for males. Much of the growth in the overall rate was due to increases in the immediate enrollment rate of females at 4-year institutions.
  • White high school graduates had consistently higher enrollment rates than their black and Hispanic peers over time, as did students from high-income families compared with those from low-income families.

Many college freshmen lack adequate preparation for higher education and need remedial assistance in their transition to college.

  • In 2000, some 76% of postsecondary institutions offered remedial reading, writing, or mathematics courses. At these institutions, 22% of freshmen took remedial mathematics, 14% took remedial writing, and 11% took remedial reading. From 1995 to 2000, more institutions reported that students needed a year or more of remediation.
  • Freshmen at public 2-year institutions had higher enrollment rates in remedial courses: 42% of freshmen at these institutions, compared with 12% to 24% of their peers at other types of institutions, enrolled in a remedial course in fall 2000.
National Science Board.