Increasing mathematics and science coursetaking is one goal of current education reform efforts. Policymakers are calling for high school students to take more courses in mathematics and science, particularly at the advanced level, to ensure they are adequately prepared for college and careers and to keep the United States competitive in the global marketplace (NSB 2010a; President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology 2010). Strategies to increase mathematics and science coursetaking have focused on raising high school graduation requirements to include more mathematics and science courses, creating core academic standards to ensure that these courses are sufficiently rigorous, and encouraging students to take more rigorous mathematics and science courses.
This section provides indicators of mathematics and science coursetaking in the United States. The section begins with contextual information about programmatic efforts to increase mathematics and science coursetaking and to standardize the quality of these courses. The section next examines various indicators of mathematics and science coursetaking by recent high school graduates in the United States, including trends in overall mathematics and science credits completed by high school graduates, the extent to which students take advanced mathematics and science courses, enrollment in algebra I before high school, and differences in these indicators among various demographic groups.
The primary data source for this section is the NAEP High School Transcript Study (HSTS). Conducted every 4 to 6 years since 1990, HSTS analyzes transcripts from a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school graduates. Results from the 2009 NAEP HSTS are compared to the results from the 2005, 2000, and 1990 studies. Because the HSTS has been conducted periodically for more than two decades, the data illuminate trends in coursetaking. In addition to course credits earned, HSTS collects student information such as gender and race/ethnicity, allowing comparisons of coursetaking, credits earned, and achievement across demographic groups.
The American Diploma Project (ADP) Network includes government and education leaders from 35 states. It seeks to improve student achievement by aligning high school academic content standards with the demands of college and careers and by requiring all graduating students to have completed a college-and-career-ready curriculum (Achieve, Inc. 2011). ADP also encourages states and school districts to adopt graduation benchmarks that align high school coursework with the expectations of colleges and employers. These benchmarks specify that students should take at least 3 years of science and 4 years of mathematics to earn a high school diploma and that some of these courses should be at the advanced level. For example, the benchmarks specify that students must complete mathematics courses at least through the level of precalculus and that science courses must include biology, chemistry, and physics. Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these graduation requirements (Achieve, Inc. 2011).
The Council of Chief State School Officers has documented the nationwide trend of rising mathematics and science coursework requirements to earn a high school diploma (table
While graduation requirements for mathematics and science coursetaking show an upward trend, a recent ACT report (2010) found that nearly half of high school seniors planning to attend college had not completed the advanced courses necessary to enroll in credit-bearing college courses. Thus, ADP continues its efforts not only to increase the number of mathematics and science courses required to graduate, but also to have states specify that some of these courses be at an advanced level.
A complementary reform effort, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, focuses on the content of the courses that students take rather than the number or level of courses. Its goal is to ensure that academic standards across states are similar and that they include the rigorous content and higher order skills necessary to prepare all students for college and careers (see sidebar "Common Core State Standards").
HSTS distinguishes between two levels of mathematics and science courses: general and advanced. General-level courses include introductory content needed for more advanced courses. General mathematics includes courses such as basic mathematics, prealgebra, algebra I, and geometry. General science courses include science survey, introduction to physics, and biology 1.
Advanced courses include higher level content and are sometimes the second-year courses in a subject. For example, advanced mathematics courses include algebra II, precalculus/analysis, trigonometry, statistics and probability, and calculus. Advanced science courses include advanced biology, chemistry, and physics. (Engineering is considered an advanced course and often is grouped with advanced science courses for analysis, as it is in this section.)
Researchers and policymakers suggest that it is not enough simply to require students to earn more credits in mathematics and science; students also need to earn credits in advanced courses if goals for improved mathematics and science education and outcomes are to be met. Advanced mathematics and science coursetaking is a strong predictor of students' educational success. For example, students who take advanced mathematics and science courses in high school are more likely to earn higher scores on academic assessments, enroll in college, pursue mathematics and science majors in college, and complete a bachelor's degree (Bozick and Lauff 2007; Chen 2009; NCES 2010, 2011; Nord et al. 2011).
Data from HSTS show that the graduating class of 2009 continued the upward trend of having earned more total credits in mathematics and science. The average number of credits earned for all mathematics courses was 3.9 in 2009, up from 3.2 in 1990 (figure
HSTS data also show that U.S. high school students are taking increasing numbers of advanced mathematics and science courses. The average number of credits earned by high school graduates in advanced mathematics courses increased from 0.9 in 1990 to 1.7 in 2009 (figure
Credits earned for advanced mathematics courses. From 1990 to 2009, the percentages of students taking advanced mathematics courses increased substantially (figure
One reason students have been able to increase the number of advanced mathematics courses taken in high school is that in recent years more of them have been taking algebra I before high school (Nord et al. 2011) (see sidebar "Taking Algebra I Before High School").
Credits earned for advanced science courses. Many more students took advanced science courses in 2009 as well (figure
Compared with advanced mathematics and science, fewer students earned credits in engineering: 3% of 2009 graduates had taken engineering in high school, up from 1.5% in 2005.
Although mathematics and science coursetaking has increased for all demographic groups, differences among these groups have persisted. White students are more likely to earn advanced credits than black or Hispanic students. Asian/Pacific Islander students outpace other groups of students in terms of credits earned and percentages taking advanced courses.
Credits earned in advanced courses. In 2009, females and males earned approximately equal credits in advanced mathematics—an average of 1.7 credits (appendix table
In 2009, females earned an average of 1.9 advanced science and engineering credits, compared to 1.8 credits for males. Among major racial/ethnic groups, Asian/Pacific Islander students earned the highest number of credits in advanced science and engineering (2.8). Hispanic and black students earned 1.5 and 1.6 credits, respectively, in these subjects. White students earned more credits (2.0 credits in advanced science and engineering) than black or Hispanic students, but fewer than Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Percentage taking advanced courses. The percentage of females taking precalculus/analysis (37%) was higher than that of males (34%), as was the percentage of females taking algebra II (78% compared to 74%) (appendix table
Gender differences in advanced science coursetaking varied by subject (appendix table