Student Learning in Mathematics and Science

All student groups made gains in mathematics and science during elementary and high school, but performance disparities were evident, and some gaps widened as students progressed through school.

  • Studies that follow the same groups of students as they progress through school reveal performance disparities among demographic subgroups starting when they enter kindergarten. Students from financially poorer families or whose mother had less formal education entered kindergarten with lower levels of mathematics skills and knowledge than their more advantaged peers. Substantial racial/ethnic gaps in mathematics performance were also observed. Although all subgroups made gains in mathematics and science during elementary school, the rates of growth varied and some of the achievement gaps widened.
  • Mathematics performance gaps among demographic subgroups were evident in 10th grade and some continued to widen through 12th grade.

In 2005, U.S. fourth and eighth grade students outperformed those tested in the 1990s in mathematics, and fourth grade students improved in science.

  • Increases in fourth and eighth grade mathematics scores from 1990 to 2005 were widespread, occurring among males and females, all racial/ethnic groups, students from financially disadvantaged and advantaged families, and students performing at all levels of achievement. Some mathematics achievement gaps did decrease over the same period.
  • Widespread increases in mathematics from the 1990s to 2005 were not matched in science. Since 1996, the first year the current national science assessment was given, average science scores increased for 4th graders, held steady for 8th graders, and declined for 12th graders.

Standards and Student Coursetaking

In 2006, slightly more than half the states required 3 or more years of both mathematics and science courses for high school graduation.

  • Students in more than 40 states were required to complete at least 2 years of both mathematics and science in high school; 3 years was the most common requirement for both subjects, in effect in just over half the states. Very few states required 4 years in either subject, and only one state required 4 years in both.

State development of course content standards has progressed in recent years and standards continue to be reviewed and revised.

  • All states had issued content standards in mathematics and science by 2006–07, and 35 states had schedules for reviewing and revising those standards.

Trends from 1990 to 2005 show increases in advanced coursetaking; growth was especially strong in mathematics.

  • Class of 2005 graduates completed mathematics courses at far higher rates than their 1990 counterparts in all categories except trigonometry/algebra III. The proportion of students completing courses in precalculus/analysis, calculus, and Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) calculus at least doubled since 1990. Nonetheless, completion of advanced mathematics courses remained below 20% in 2005 except for precalculus/analysis.
  • Student course completion rates have increased since 1990 in advanced biology, chemistry, and physics, although they leveled off between 2000 and 2005.
  • For AP/IB courses, coursetaking rates have not changed significantly for chemistry or physics, but increased slightly for biology and doubled for calculus and environmental science. Despite this growth, just less than 10% of graduates completed an AP/IB calculus course, the highest rate for any AP/IB course.

Course completion rates differed in the graduating class of 2005 by several demographic and school characteristics.

  • Males and females completed advanced mathematics courses at about equal rates, except for precalculus/analysis, where females had a slight advantage. Females studied biology and chemistry at higher rates, whereas males studied physics, engineering, and engineering/science technologies at higher rates.
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders were the most likely of all racial/ethnic groups to earn credits in many mathematics and science subjects, especially in AP/IB classes in calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics.

Mathematics and Science Teacher Quality

Most mathematics and science teachers have the basic teaching qualifications of a college degree and full state certification.

  • Virtually all public school mathematics and science teachers had at least a bachelor's degree and half had an advanced degree such as a master's or doctorate.
  • A large majority of mathematics and science teachers (84% in 2003) held standard or advanced certification issued by their state.
  • At least 75% of 2003 mathematics and science teachers with less than 5 years of teaching experience participated in practice teaching before their first teaching job. Although practice teaching contributes to new teachers' confidence in their ability to perform their first jobs, practice teaching declined from 1999 to 2003.

The majority of public high school mathematics and science teachers had a college major or certification in their subject field, that is, they were "in-field" teachers. In-field teaching was less common in middle schools than in high schools.

  • In 2003, 78%–92% of mathematics, biology, and physical science teachers in public high schools were teaching in field. Out-of-field teachers (that is, teachers teaching their subject with neither a major nor certification in the subject matter field, a related field, or general education) ranged from 2% of physical science teachers to 8% of mathematics teachers.
  • The proportion of in-field mathematics and science teachers in middle schools was lower (33%–55%) than in high schools (78%–92%). About 3%–10% were teaching out of field.

Teachers in schools with low concentrations of minority and low-income students tended to have more education, better preparation and qualifications, and more experience than teachers in schools with high concentrations of such students.

  • Mathematics and science teachers in low-minority and low-poverty schools were more likely than their colleagues in high-minority and high-poverty schools to have a master's or higher degree and to hold full certification.
  • Mathematics and science teachers in low-minority and low-poverty schools were more likely to teach in field than their colleagues in high-minority and high-poverty schools.
  • New mathematics and science teachers (those with 3 or fewer years of teaching experience) were more prevalent in high-minority and high-poverty schools than in low-minority and low-poverty schools.

Professional Development of Mathematics and Science Teachers

Participation in induction and mentoring programs was widespread.

  • In 2003, 68%–72% of beginning mathematics and science teachers in public middle and high schools reported that they had participated in a formal teacher induction program or had worked closely with a mentor teacher during their first year of teaching.

Teacher participation in professional development was common. However, various features of professional development identified as being effective in bringing about changes in teaching practices were not widespread.

  • In 2003, more than 70% of mathematics and science teachers in public middle and high schools participated in professional development focusing on the content of their subject field. About two-thirds attended professional development in using computers for instruction. Professional development most frequently took the form of workshops, conferences, and training sessions (91% in 2003).
  • Recent research has found that intensive participation of at least 60–80 hours may be necessary to bring about meaningful change in teaching practice. In 2003, 4%–28% of mathematics and science teachers in public middle and high schools attended professional development programs for 33 hours or more over the course of a school year.

Teacher Salaries, Working Conditions, and Job Satisfaction

Attrition from teaching was typically lower than from other professions and attrition rates of mathematics and science teachers were no greater than the overall rate. Many were satisfied with being teachers and planned to stay in the profession as long as they could.

  • Among all college graduates working in 1994, 34% were working in the same occupational category in 2003 and 54% had made a change in occupation. In contrast, 61% of college graduates entering K–12 teaching in 1994 were still teaching in 2003 and 21% had left teaching for nonteaching jobs.
  • Between academic years 2003 and 2004, about 6%–7% of mathematics and science teachers in public schools left teaching, compared with 8% of all teachers.
  • In 2003, 90% of mathematics and science teachers said that they were satisfied with being teachers in their schools, 76% planned to remain in teaching as long as they could or until retirement, and more than 66% expressed their willingness to become teachers again if they could start over.

Public secondary schools experienced varying degrees of difficulty in finding teachers in mathematics and science.

  • About 80% of public secondary schools reported teaching vacancies (i.e., teaching positions needing to be filled) in one or more fields in academic year 2003. Among these schools, 74% had vacant positions in mathematics and 52%–56% had vacant positions in biology/life sciences and physical sciences.
  • About one-third of public secondary schools with vacancies in mathematics or physical sciences reported great difficulty in finding teachers to fill openings in these fields, whereas 22% of schools reported that this was the case in biology/life sciences.

Science and mathematics teacher salaries continue to lag behind salaries for individuals working in comparable professions and the gaps have widened substantially in recent years.

  • In 2003, the median salary for full-time high school mathematics and science teachers was $43,000, lower than the salaries of professionals with comparable educational backgrounds such as computer systems analysts, engineers, accountants or financial specialists, and protective service workers ($50,000–$72,000). From 1993 to 2003, full-time high school mathematics and science teachers had a real salary gain of 8%, compared with increases of 21%–29% for computer systems analysts, accountants or financial specialists, and engineers.
  • In 2003, 53% of public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers said that they were not satisfied with their salaries.

Most public school teachers had favorable perceptions of their working conditions.

  • In 2003, at least 79% of mathematics and science teachers in public middle and high schools reported strong leadership from the administration in their school, a great amount of collaboration among their colleagues, and sufficient instructional materials.
  • Relatively few of them viewed various student problems as "serious" in their schools. The problems that teachers rated most often as serious were students arriving at school unprepared to learn (37%) and student apathy (32%).

Transition to Higher Education

A majority of young people in the United States finished high school with a regular diploma or an equivalent credential.

  • In 2005, 88% of 18–24-year-olds not enrolled in high school had received a high school diploma or earned an equivalent credential such as a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) certificate.
  • Completion rates showed an upward trend for each racial/ethnic group between 1975 and 2005. The rates increased faster for blacks than for whites, narrowing the gaps between the two groups. The gaps between whites and Hispanics remained wide.
  • The on-time graduation rate, which measures the rates at which high school freshmen graduate with a regular diploma 4 years later, ranged from 72%–74% in the early 2000s.

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

  • Between 1975 and 2005, the percentage of students ages 16–24 enrolling in college immediately following high school graduation rose from 51% to 69%.
  • Increases in rates of immediate college enrollment have occurred among all subgroups of students. However, wide gaps among these subgroups have persisted, with black and Hispanic students and those from low-income and poorly educated families trailing behind their white counterparts or those from high-income and well-educated families.
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