Title bar


Family Resources/Support
School Characteristics
Student Opportunities to Learn
Many reports on the elementary/secondary education of minorities have presented data on student achievement, noting differences among minority groups and the differences between minorities and whites (e.g., Educational Testing Service 1991). While such data are useful as a starting point for examining the role that elementary/secondary education plays in the underrepresentation of minorities in science and engineering, additional information is necessary to present a more complete picture. It is especially useful to analyze not just the "outcome," but the "inputs" to minority achievement, i.e., selected variables that are related to how well those children perform in school. [1]
This analysis attempts to relate at the secondary school level-where many critical decisions are made-the achievements, family resources, school characteristics, and student opportunities to learn (Stevens 1993) of underrepresented minority students. (Underrepresented minority groups in science, mathematics, and engineering are blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians.)

Achievement Up arrow

There are important differences in student achievement in science and mathematics across minority groups and between minorities and whites. In general, Asian students have levels of achievement in mathematics and science higher than students from any other racial/ethnic group, including whites. The average achievement levels of Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians are lower than those of both whites and Asians. Similar differences appear in undergraduate education, graduate education, and the science and engineering workforce. This is a strong indicator that factors affecting representation in science and engineering are operating in elementary and secondary school.
In the last 15 years, the differences in the mathematics and science test scores between whites and underrepresented minorities have declined, but they are still an area for national concern. (See appendix tables 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, 2-5, and 2-6.)
In mathematics, the average proficiency of Asian students was higher than that of whites and other minorities at grades 4, 8, and 12 in 1992. For example, the mathematics proficiency of Asian 12th grade students was 10 points higher than that of whites, 32 points higher than Hispanics, 34 points higher than American Indians, and 40 points higher than blacks. (See text table 2-1.)
In science proficiency, Asian students trailed whites by 9 points in grade 4, were almost equally proficient at grade 8, and led whites by 5 points at grade 12 in 1990. The other racial/ethnic groups trailed at all grade levels. At grade 12, American Indians' proficiency was lower than that of Asians by 22 points, Hispanics' by 35 points, and blacks' by 52 points. (See text table 2-2.)
Although the persistent gap in average achievements between whites and Asians and underrepresented minority groups is narrowing, differences remain. Scrutiny of many factors involving families, schools, and students suggests means to close the gap.

Family Resources/Support Up arrow

A correlation analysis of the strength of the relationship between student achievement and family resources shows that for the eighth grade student population in 1988 the top three variables related to science and mathematics achievement test scores were
parents' expectations about student educational attainment,
learning materials made available by parents, and
parental education level. (See appendix table 2-7.)
Almost 80 percent of Asian parents expected their eighth grade students to receive a college degree, a level unmatched by any other racial/ethnic group. Sixty-three percent of white parents expected their children to earn a college degree, compared with 62 percent of black parents, 57 percent of Hispanic parents, and 56 percent of American Indian parents. (See figure 2-2 and appendix table 2-8.)

Figure 2-2

Underrepresented minority students in general have fewer learning materials and opportunities made available at home and participate in fewer educational activities outside of school. Hispanic and black students were less likely than white students to visit an art gallery, museum, zoo, or aquarium or to go to a movie, play, concert, or other live show in their early childhood (U.S. Department of Education/NCES 1991a). In the eighth grade, significantly fewer underrepresented minority students than whites had borrowed books from a library or visited a museum. (See appendix table 2-9.) A lack of materials and resources typically reflects the economic status of the parent(s); the proportion of Hispanic, American Indian, or black children living in poverty is high. (See figure 2-3.) Poverty has a reverberating effect not only on children and their families, but also on the schools the students attend.

Figure 2-3

Both parental expectations for the level of education their children may attain and the learning materials and resources made available by parents are often closely tied to the parental educational level. While most parents of white and Asian students had completed high school, there were significant percentages of Hispanic, black, and American Indian parents who had not completed high school. (See figure 2-4.)

Figure 2-4

School Characteristics Up arrow

A correlation analysis on the strength of the relationship between student achievement and school climate shows that for all eighth grade student populations the top three variables in predicting science and mathematics achievement test scores are
the socioeconomic status of students in the school,
whether students place a priority on learning, and
teacher ability to motivate students. (See appendix table 2-10.)
As a proxy for socioeconomic status, schools were divided into two categories: advantaged schools and disadvantaged schools. Disadvantaged schools are defined as those with at least 50 percent of students participating in a free or reduced-price lunch program based on poverty income levels. Only 7 percent of white eighth grade students attended disadvantaged schools. The percentage of Asian eighth grade students attending disadvantaged schools, 15 percent, was more than twice as high. By far the largest percentages of students attending disadvantaged schools were found among American Indians (40 percent), Hispanics (39 percent), and blacks (36 percent). (See figure 2-5.)

Figure 2-5

Students at disadvantaged schools tend to face more barriers to learning than students at advantaged schools. For example, according to a survey of administrators, teachers at advantaged schools were more likely to have high morale and positive attitudes about students. Teachers at disadvantaged schools were more than twice as likely to have difficulty motivating students as those at advantaged schools. (See text table 2-3.)
There are other important differences among racial/ethnic groups in the backgrounds their teachers are likely to have. Almost 46 percent of white eighth grade students were taught mathematics by teachers who had majored in math. This was the highest percentage of any racial/ethnic group, though Asians were a close second, with 44 percent of their math teachers having math majors. Forty percent of the mathematics teachers of black students had majored in math, one-third of the teachers of Hispanics, and 30 percent of the teachers of American Indians. Fifty-three percent of Asian eighth grade students were taught science by teachers who had majored in science, the highest percentage of all racial/ethnic groups. Almost 49 percent of the science teachers of whites and blacks had majored in science, compared with 47 percent for Hispanics, and 40 percent for American Indians. (See appendix table 2-11.)
The relative lack of physical resources in disadvantaged schools presents another barrier to learning. For example, in a survey of physics teachers, almost half indicated that the best method to improve or expand physics programs is to improve the laboratory component (American Institute of Physics 1994). "Hands-on" laboratory experience is important to science courses, but students in disadvantaged schools have this experience less often than students in advantaged schools. Although 30 percent of eighth grade students in advantaged schools have laboratory work at least once a week, only 22 percent of the students in disadvantaged schools have similar opportunities.

Student Opportunities To Learn Up arrow

A correlation analysis of the strength of the relationship between student achievement and student characteristics shows that for all eighth grade student populations the two most important variables in predicting science and mathematics achievement test scores are
the students' educational aspirations and
the courses students take in school. (See appendix table 2-12.)
In particular, there is a very high correlation between taking geometry courses and high test scores in science and mathematics. There is also a high correlation between taking advanced algebra courses and achievement in science and mathematics. Students in an "honors track" program would most likely have had the opportunity to take these classes.
It is important to distinguish between attitudes toward mathematics and science and educational aspirations. There appear to be no significant differences among racial/ethnic groups in their attitudes toward mathematics and science (i.e., whether they "like" those subjects). [2] Measures of student attitudes indicate that eighth grade students in all racial/ethnic groups have positive attitudes toward mathematics and science classes. In 1988, large majorities of both whites and minorities agreed that mathematics and science classes were important to their future. (See appendix table 2-13.) The percentages of black, Hispanic, and American Indian eighth grade students who said they looked forward to mathematics and science classes were higher than for whites, even though these groups trailed whites in average math and science achievement. In 1992, white 12th grade students were also less likely than blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians to say they liked mathematics and less likely than Hispanics and American Indians to say they liked science. (See text table 2-4.)
Although liking math or science is a first step, it does not necessarily lead to aspirations for a career in these fields. Important differences among racial/ethnic groups appear when students are asked about the education levels and kinds of career they hope or expect to achieve. In terms of educational attainment, 31 percent of white and 30 percent of Asian 10th grade students expect to graduate from college, a requirement for almost any science or mathematics career. Only 26 percent of black, 23 percent of Hispanic, and 19 percent of American Indian students expect to complete a college education. (See appendix table 2-14.)
Almost 11 percent of Asian eighth grade students in 1988 said they expected to be a science or engineering professional when they were 30 years old. Seven percent of whites had the same expectation, while 5 percent of Hispanic and black students said they thought they would have a career in science or engineering.
The types of courses taken by students are also especially important as "opportunities to learn" and are often determined overall by the type of high school program in which the student is enrolled. For example, 34 percent of white 10th grade students were enrolled in college preparatory, academic, or specialized academic programs in 1990. Only 26 percent of blacks, 23 percent of Hispanics, and 16 percent of American Indians were enrolled in such programs. Asian enrollment in college preparatory programs was at 42 percent. (See figure 2-6.) In addition, a recent survey of enrollment rates in high school chemistry and physics classes shows that Asian students are three times and white students are two times more likely to take physics than are black or Hispanic students. (See figure 2-7.)

Figure 2-6 Figure 2-7

A similar pattern emerged in enrollment in advanced mathematics courses, particularly geometry enrollment, the factor most highly correlated with math and science achievement. In 1990, almost 65 percent of Asian and more than 53 percent of white 10th grade students had taken or were taking geometry. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians trail well behind, at less than 42 percent, 39 percent, and 34 percent respectively. (See figure 2-8a and figure 2-8b.)

Figure 2-8a
Figure 2-8b

In 1992, Asian and white 12th grade students were also significantly more likely to have taken eight or more semesters of mathematics classes in high school than were blacks, Hispanics, or American Indians. Forty-four percent of whites had taken eight or more classes, compared with 32 percent of blacks, 30 percent of Hispanics, and 28 percent of American Indians, all considerably less than the 64 percent of Asians who had taken eight or more semesters. (See text table 2-5.)
Both the level and the number of science courses taken by students are important in determining general scientific literacy and the pool of future scientists.
The number of courses taken in science is an important factor in preparation for additional study. Racial/ethnic groups differ in the proportions who could by this indicator be characterized as well prepared for undergraduate majors in science and engineering. Among students at postsecondary institutions, 40 percent of Asians and 19 percent of whites had been science course "concentrators" in high school (that is, their coursework was concentrated on science courses). Fewer than 10 percent of Hispanics and 6 percent of blacks had such concentrations. (See appendix table 2-15.) (The number of courses in their field of study taken by undergraduate majors are compared across gender and racial/ethnic groups in chapter 5.)
Although many variables contribute to the differences in achievement levels among racial/ethnic groups, the most significant is the opportunity to learn. Advanced science and mathematics courses, especially geometry, are essential for all students to progress in the sequence of science and mathematics instruction. They increase the population that is "scientifically literate" and increase the size of the group of students for whom science-related careers are possible. It is interesting to note that among college-bound students, more than 85 percent of male and female students from all racial/ethnic groups took geometry. As discussed in chapter 3, students who took the more advanced mathematics courses in high school received higher mathematics scores on college entrance examinations. These courses also assist in clarifying goals related to careers in science and engineering. Yet opportunities for study in advanced science and mathematics are different across groups.

1. All references, detailed tables, and detailed methodological discussions for the analysis are found in U.S. Department of Education/NCES 1994. Up arrow

2. Comparisons of attitudes toward science of the adult population for racial/ethnic groups are presented in chapter 1. Up arrow

TOC buttonHelp buttonAbbreviations 
buttonNSF buttonLeft button