One explanation of why so few students are taking advanced courses in science and math may be the low levels of students who think these courses are necessary for their planned careers. Relatively few students seem to understand the relationship between advanced math and science courses and careers in science, engineering, or the health professions. Data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY) show that in 1990, 28 percent of all seniors who were not enrolled in a mathematics or science course that semester did not feel that they needed advanced mathematics for what they plan to do in the future, and 39 percent of these seniors said they would not need advanced science. (Click here for footnote 11.) In addition, approximately 30 percent of these students were advised by teachers and counselors that they did not need to take any more mathematics or science.
Even among students who expect to become scientists, the proportion who believe that advanced mathematics or science is necessary to their careers is below 75 percent. Of those 12th grade students who plan to become scientists, less than two-thirds said they needed specific advanced mathematics and science courses in high school. Slightly more students who planned to become engineers knew they needed the advanced mathematics and science courses. (See text table 1-4.)
Between 1978 and 1990, student beliefs regarding the relevance of mathematics and science coursework to their lives and careers changed only slightly. (See text table 1-5.) The proportion of 17-year-old students indicating that they would like to take more mathematics classes remained constant during this period, as did the proportion of 17-year-olds who felt they were good at this subject. Interestingly, among 13-year-olds, the proportion that wanted to take more math classes decreased by 7 percent, while the proportion that felt they were good at math increased by 6 percent (ETS 1991). The percentage of students indicating that they were taking mathematics "only because I have to" stayed the same for both age groups from 1978 to 1990. In science, over half of the 17-year-olds surveyed felt that what they learned in science classes is useful in everyday life; nearly two-thirds felt that what they learned in science classes will be useful in the future. These numbers were constant from 1978 to 1990.
Yet student attitudes toward mathematics and science are generally positive. The LSAY data indicate that most students enjoy studying mathematics and science as much as they do studying English and social studies. Students at all levels of coursework and achievement find mathematics and science courses to be much more challenging than English or social studies courses. The NELS:88 data show that over half (57 percent) of eighth grade students look forward to mathematics class, and 63 percent look forward to science class. Nearly 90 percent of these eighth graders felt that mathematics is important to their future, and 70 percent felt that science is important to their future.