Mathematics and science coursetaking in high school is a strong predictor of students’ overall educational success. Students who take advanced mathematics and science courses in high school are more likely to earn high scores on academic assessments, enroll in college, pursue mathematics and science majors, and complete a bachelor’s degree (Bozick and Lauff 2007; Chen 2009; NCES 2010, 2011b; Nord et al. 2011). Advanced coursetaking in high school is also associated with greater labor market returns and higher job satisfaction, even when controlling for demographic characteristics and postsecondary education and attainment (Altonji, Blom, and Maghir 2012; NRC 2012c). Analysis of the NAEP High School Transcript Study (NAEP HSTS) showed that the percentage of students earning credits for mathematics and science courses has increased steadily since 1990, though gaps among different groups of students remain (NSB 2012). This section draws on data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09) and the College Board’s AP program to augment earlier findings on mathematics and science coursetaking in high school, advanced coursetaking, and differences in coursetaking among various demographic groups. The section begins with contextual information about programmatic efforts to increase mathematics and science coursetaking and to standardize the quality of these courses. This information informs the interpretation of ninth grade coursetaking patterns found in the HSLS data.
Government and education leaders from 35 states participate in the American Diploma Project (ADP), which seeks to improve student achievement by aligning high school academic content standards with the demands of college and careers and requiring all graduating students to have completed a college- and career-ready curriculum (Achieve 2012). ADP encourages states and school districts to adopt graduation benchmarks that align high school coursework with the expectations of colleges and employers. The ADP graduation benchmarks suggest that for students to be considered ready for college and career, all students should complete 4 years of mathematics coursework at least through the level of pre-calculus. In science, students should complete at least 3 years of coursework, including biology, chemistry, and physics. Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these graduation requirements (Achieve 2012). Two reform efforts, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and the Next Generation Science Standards, focus on the content of the courses that students take rather than the number or level of courses. The goal of these efforts is to ensure that academic standards across states are similar and include the rigorous content and higher-order skills necessary to prepare all students for college and careers (see sidebar, “Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards”).
HSLS:09 provides detailed data about student coursetaking in mathematics and science in ninth grade. Based on a nationally representative sample of approximately 24,000 ninth graders in 944 schools, it focuses on understanding students’ trajectories from the beginning of high school into higher education and the workforce (Ingels et al. 2011). HSLS:09 includes a heightened focus on STEM coursetaking and the high school and personal factors that lead students into and out of STEM fields of study and related careers. The data reported here are based on the base year of the study, conducted in fall 2009 when participants were in the ninth grade. The base year supplies data about the mathematics and science courses that ninth graders took and about variations in their coursetaking by such factors as race and ethnicity, parental education level, and SES. The data are based on students’ self-report of what mathematics and science courses they enrolled in at the beginning of ninth grade, not on evidence that they successfully completed the courses.
Algebra 1 is considered a “gateway” course leading to more advanced coursetaking in mathematics and to higher levels of achievement (Loveless 2008; Tierney et al. 2009). An expert panel convened by the Institution of Education Sciences to advise high schools on how to prepare students for college recommended that at a minimum all students should pass algebra 1 by the end of their ninth grade year (Tierny et al. 2009). The HSLS data indicate that the majority of students (81%) who were ninth graders in 2009 (the graduating class of 2012) were on track to meet this benchmark (table
The percentage of students taking coursework above the level of algebra 1 in ninth grade (29%) indicates that many students are taking this course before reaching high school. These self-reported data are in line with NAEP transcript data (reported in the 2012 Science and Engineering Indicators), which indicated that 26% of high school graduates took algebra 1 before high school in 2009, up from 20% in 2005 (NSB 2012). NAEP HSTS data show that nearly two-thirds of graduates who completed a rigorous high school curriculum took algebra 1 before high school (Nord et al. 2011).
The percentage of students reporting enrollment in courses above algebra 1 varied by parental education level, SES, and race and ethnicity. Students who had at least one parent with a master’s degree or higher were most likely to report enrollment in a mathematics course above algebra 1 (51%), followed by students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (41%). About 22% of students with parents at all other education levels (associate’s degree, high school diploma, and less than high school) reported enrolling in courses above algebra 1, with no significant difference among students with parents at these education levels. Nearly 50% of students in the highest SES quintile reported taking a course above algebra 1 compared with just 18% of students in the lowest SES quintile (figure
At the other end of the spectrum are students who reported no mathematics enrollment in ninth grade: 18% of students whose parents had less than a high school education reported no mathematics enrollment compared with 7% of students who had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (table
Biology is the most common science subject students take in ninth grade: nearly 4 in 10 students in ninth grade (39%) reported enrollment in biology 1 (table
Several programs offer high school students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school. The AP program is one of the largest and best known. Other options for students interested in earning college credit during high school include dual enrollment, with students concurrently enrolling in college courses while still in high school, and the International Baccalaureate program, which offers college credit for high school courses (Thomas et al. 2013).
In the AP program, students take college-level courses at their high school. Courses are offered in 34 different subjects and students who earn a passing score (3 or higher out of 5) on an AP exam can earn college credits, placement into more advanced college courses, or both, depending on the policy of the postsecondary institution they attend. Research suggests that students who take AP or other college-level courses in high school are more likely to enroll and persist in college than their peers who do not take these courses (Klopfenstein and Thomas 2009; Porter and Polikoff 2012). Access to AP courses is an issue, however. The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the AP program, notes that availability and variety of AP courses is lower in schools with higher numbers of low-income and traditionally underserved minority students (College Board 2013). Some schools, particularly small schools and schools in low-income and remote areas, may not offer any AP courses for their students (see sidebar, “Access to Advanced Placement Courses in Mathematics and Science”).
Calculus AB and biology are the most popular AP exams in mathematics and science. According to the College Board, 212,000 students in the graduating class of 2012 took calculus AB and 153,000 students took biology (appendix table
The number of students taking at least one AP exam in mathematics or science has doubled in the past decade. In the class of 2012, 500,000 students took an AP mathematics or science exam during high school, up from 250,000 students in the class of 2002 (table
Although the number of students taking AP exams in mathematics and science has doubled, the AP program in mathematics and science involves a relatively small proportion of all high school students. For example, 17% of all students in the class of 2012 took an AP mathematics or science exam, with 9% passing (table
As the number of students taking AP exams has increased, so has the number passing these exams. Nearly 270,000 students in the class of 2012 passed an AP mathematics or science exam in 2012 compared with about 155,000 in 2002 (table
AP exams covering more advanced material, such as calculus BC and physics, are taken by fewer students, but the pass rates are much higher. For example, 70,000 students in the class of 2012 took the calculus BC exam; more than 200,000 took the relatively less demanding calculus AB exam. The pass rate for calculus BC was 82%, compared with 57% for calculus AB (table
The proportion of male and female students taking particular AP exams differs by test subject (figure
Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented among AP exam takers. Although black students made up about 15% of the 2012 graduating class, they comprised less than 8% of students taking any AP mathematics or science exam (appendix table