Chapter 1 | Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education
High School Coursetaking in Mathematics and Science
To understand students’ achievement in mathematics or science, it helps to understand what courses they have taken. In addition, STEM coursetaking in high school is predictive of earning a STEM degree in postsecondary education, with students who take more advanced mathematics and science in high school more likely to complete college with a STEM degree (Tyson et al. 2007; Wang 2013). This section examines high school students’ participation in mathematics and science courses using data from HSLS:09, the College Board’s AP program, and data collected by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
HSLS:09 is a longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of approximately 20,000 students who were first surveyed in fall 2009 as ninth graders and were surveyed again in 2012, when most were spring-term eleventh graders. The HSLS:09 sample includes students from public and private schools, so it is representative of the overall in-school population. It does not include home-schooled students, who make up about 3% of the student population in the United States (Redford, Battle, and Bielick 2017). Transcript data were collected for HSLS:09 students in summer 2013, when most would have completed high school (Dalton, Ingels, and Fritch 2016). Compared with students’ self-reports of coursetaking, transcript data provide a more accurate account of mathematics and science coursetaking for all students in the study for whom transcripts were collected. Transcript data are used in this section to examine the mathematics and science courses taken by students who had completed high school by summer 2013.
Given the ongoing emphasis on readiness for college and career at the completion of high school (Achieve Inc. 2016), this section focuses specifically on mathematics and science coursetaking among high school completers (i.e., students who graduated from high school with a regular diploma or an alternative credential such as a General Educational Development [GED] certificate). It is recommended that high school graduates interested in attending a public university complete a minimum of 3 years of mathematics, including algebra 2, and 3 years of science, including biology and either chemistry or physics (Bromberg and Theokas 2016).
Highest Mathematics Courses Taken by High School Completers
Among ninth graders who began high school in 2009 and completed high school in 2013, the majority (89%) completed algebra 2 or higher (Table 1-14). More specifically, approximately one-quarter of students stopped with algebra 2 as their highest mathematics course, another quarter stopped with trigonometry or other advanced mathematics, 22% advanced to pre-calculus, and 19% finished with calculus or higher.
Socioeconomic status. Students in the highest SES quintile were more likely to take advanced mathematics courses than their peers in the middle and lowest SES quintiles (Table 1-14). For example, the percentage of students in the highest SES quintile taking calculus or higher was four times higher than the percentage of students in the lowest SES quintile (37% versus 9%) and two times higher than the percentage of students in the middle SES quintiles (37% versus 16%).
Highest-level mathematics course enrollment of high school completers, by student and family characteristics: 2013
Race or ethnicity. Asian students took advanced mathematics courses at a significantly higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, with 50% taking calculus or higher, compared with 22% for white students, 15% for Hispanic students, and 9% for black students. Although 13% of Hispanic students stopped with geometry 1 as their highest mathematics course, just 2%–7% of white, black, and Asian students did so.
Sex. Approximately the same percentage of male and female students stopped with algebra 2, trigonometry, or calculus or higher as their highest mathematics course.
Socioeconomic status and sex by race or ethnicity. Virtually no sex differences were detected in mathematics coursetaking within each racial or ethnic group (Appendix Table 1-22). However, mathematics coursetaking gaps by SES persisted even after race or ethnicity was considered (Table 1-15). In all racial or ethnic groups, students in the highest SES quintile took advanced mathematics such as calculus at higher rates than low-SES students. Among Asian students, for example, 63% of those in the highest SES quintile took calculus compared with 30% of low-SES students. For white students, when comparing calculus coursetaking, it was 38% in the highest SES quintile versus 8% in the lowest SES quintile; for black students, it was 22% versus 3%; and for Hispanic students, it was 25% versus 12%. This pattern was reversed for lower-level mathematics coursetaking, with low-SES students in most racial or ethnic groups more likely than their high-SES peers to stop taking mathematics at the lower course levels. For example, 37% of low-SES white students took algebra 2 as their highest mathematics course, compared with 11% of high-SES white students.
Highest-level mathematics course enrollment of high school completers, by socioeconomic status within race or ethnicity: 2013
Other characteristics. The highest level of mathematics coursetaking was also positively related to parents’ highest education and students’ mathematics achievement, mathematics coursetaking, and educational expectations in ninth grade (Appendix Table 1-23). In addition, students who attended private school took advanced courses at higher rates than students who attended public schools. For example, 33% of students at private schools took calculus or higher, compared with 18% of students at public schools.
Science Coursetaking by High School Completers
All ninth graders who began high school in 2009 and completed in 2013 took at least one science course, with 79% taking at least one general science course (but no advanced science) and 21% taking at least one advanced course (Table 1-16). Virtually all students (98%) took biology, 76% took chemistry, and fewer (41%) took physics.
Socioeconomic status. Although all students took at least one science course, students in the highest SES quintile were more than three times as likely to take at least one advanced science course compared with their peers in the lowest SES quintile (38% versus 11%). In addition, students in the highest SES quintile were more likely to take chemistry and physics courses than students in the lowest SES quintile.
Race or ethnicity. Among all racial or ethnic groups, Asian students were the most likely to take advanced science courses, by a large margin. For example, 25% of Asian students took advanced chemistry, compared with 9% of white students, 3% of black students, and 5% of Hispanic students. The percentage of students who took general physics was not significantly different among white, black, and Hispanic students.
Sex. Science coursetaking showed slight differences among male and female students. For example, 78% of female students took chemistry, compared with 73% of male students. The pattern reversed slightly for physics, with 40% of female students taking physics, compared with 43% of male students. In advanced coursetaking, female students were slightly more likely than male students to take advanced biology (13% versus 10%) and slightly less likely to take advanced physics (4% versus 7%).
Socioeconomic status and sex by race or ethnicity. Within each racial or ethnic group, students in the highest SES quintile were more likely to take at least one advanced science course compared with their counterparts in the lowest SES quintile (Table 1-17). Thirty-eight percent of high-SES white, 31% of high-SES black, and 31% of high-SES Hispanic students took at least one advanced science course, compared with approximately 10% of their peers in the lowest SES quintile.
Some sex differences in science coursetaking were observed when race or ethnicity was taken into account (Appendix Table 1-24). White female students were more likely than white male students to take chemistry (79% versus 73%), and white male students were more likely than white female students to take physics (45% versus 39%). Black female students were more likely to take at least one advanced science course than their male counterparts (18% versus 9%), specifically advanced biology (12% versus 5%).
Other characteristics. Science coursetaking also varied by parental education level, students’ mathematics achievement and coursetaking, and educational expectations (Appendix Table 1-25). For example, students who enrolled in a course above algebra 1 in ninth grade took advanced biology, chemistry, and physics at higher rates, compared with students who enrolled in algebra 1 in ninth grade (19% versus 7% for biology, 14% versus 4% for chemistry, and 11% versus 2% for physics). About 85% of students at public and private schools took general biology, but students at private schools took general chemistry and physics at higher rates than their public school counterparts (81% versus 67% and 54% versus 35%, respectively).
Science course enrollment of high school completers, by student and family characteristics: 2013
Science course enrollment of high school completers, by socioeconomic status within race or ethnicity: 2013
Computer Science and Technology Coursetaking
Computer science and coding skills are increasingly recognized as an asset in today’s economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 23% growth from 2014 to 2024 in the computer systems design and related services industry—from 1,777,700 jobs in 2014 to 2,186,600 jobs in 2024 (U.S. Department of Labor 2015). In light of this projected growth, educators and policymakers, concerned that too few students are exposed to computer science instruction in school, are working to broaden access to computer science courses (Change the Equation 2016; Nager and Atkinson 2016). An analysis of data from NAEP’s grade 12 student survey in 2015 showed that just 22% of students reported taking a course in computer programming while in high school (Change the Equation 2016). Several efforts related to computer science education are currently under way and these developments, detailed in the sidebar Focus on Computer Science, herald a new focus on computer science in K–12 education.
Longitudinal data from HSLS:09, a study that followed a cohort of ninth graders beginning high school in 2009 over 4 years of high school, indicate that 47% of 2013 high school graduates earned credit in computer and information sciences, and 15% earned credit in engineering and technology (Table 1-18; Appendix Table 1-26). The average credits earned were 1.0 credit for computer and information sciences and 1.3 credits for engineering and technology. About two and a half times as many male students (21%) earned engineering and technology credits compared with female students (8%). No significant difference was detected in the percentage of male and female students earning credits for computer and information sciences. It is important to note that computer and information sciences credits reported above included credits earned for introductory courses as well as applied courses focused on learning and using specific software programs. These introductory courses do not fall under the more rigorous definition of computer science as “the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, design, implementation and impact on society” endorsed by the new K–12 Computer Science Framework (K-12 Computer Science Framework 2016).
Average high school credits earned in technology-related courses and percentage of students earning any credit, for fall 2009 ninth graders, by sex: 2013
Data collected as part of a multiyear research effort by Gallup and Google give further insight into the state of computer science education in the United States (Google Inc. and Gallup Inc. 2016). Gallup interviewed nationally representative samples of students, parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents in late 2015 and early 2016. Data from the survey of principals reveal the extent of student access to computer science courses. A total of 57% of principals reported that their school offered at least one computer science course, although, again, these could be applied courses in how to use software programs that do not meet the more rigorous definition of computer science advocated in the new K–12 Computer Science Framework (Table 1-19). Fewer principals reported offering computer science courses with advanced content, ranging from 40% reporting courses that included computer programming to 14% reporting courses that included data analytics or visualization (Google Inc. and Gallup Inc. 2016). Computer science courses were more likely to be offered at larger schools, with 78% of principals at schools with 1,000 or more students reporting offering at least one computer science course, compared with 47% of principals at schools with less than 500 students (Table 1-19). Computer science courses were also more available at high schools (75%) than at middle schools (51%) and elementary schools (39%). When principals at schools that offered no computer science were asked why such courses were not offered, 63% indicated that teachers with the necessary skills were not available, 55% responded that they did not have sufficient funds to train and hire a teacher, and 50% noted the lack of time in their class schedule for subjects other than those with testing requirements (Google Inc. and Gallup Inc. 2016).
Percentage of principals reporting that their schools offer at least one computer science course, by grade level, size, and locale: 2016
Participation and Performance in the Advanced Placement Program
The AP program is one of the largest and most well-known programs offering high school students the opportunity to earn college credits. Other such opportunities include the International Baccalaureate program, which also offers college credits to high school students, and dual enrollment, in which students enroll in college courses while still in high school.
Administered by the College Board, a nonprofit organization, the AP program offered college-level courses to high school students in 37 different subjects in 2016, enabling students to earn credits toward high school diplomas and college degrees simultaneously. The College Board also administers AP exams that test students’ mastery of course material. Students who earn a passing score of 3 or higher out of 5 on an AP exam may be eligible to earn college credits, placement into more advanced college courses, or both, depending on the policy of the postsecondary institution they attend.
AP Exam Taking and Performance
Among mathematics and science AP exams, calculus AB has been the most common, followed by biology; both remained so in 2016, when approximately 308,000 high school students took the calculus AB exam and 238,000 took the biology exam (Table 1-20). Fewer students took more advanced exams (e.g., about 125,000 students took calculus BC). Physics C: electricity and magnetism was the least common exam, taken by approximately 23,000 students in 2016.
The number of high school students who took at least one AP exam nearly doubled in the past decade, from 1,464,254 in 2006 to 2,611,172 in 2016 (Table 1-21). To provide context, the overall high school population increased by just 9% between 2001 and 2013 (U.S. Department of Education 2015). Similarly, the number of students who took an AP exam in mathematics or science rose consistently across all subjects from 2006 to 2016, ranging from an increase of 36% in the number of students taking the calculus AB exam to an increase of 75% in the number of students taking the computer science A exam. Calculus AB, statistics, biology, and environmental science all saw gains of more than 100,000 students taking those exams over the decade. Passing rates for the mathematics and science exams ranged from lows of 40% for physics 1 and 46% for environmental science to highs of 77% for physics C: mechanics and 81% for calculus BC (Table 1-20).
Students who took or passed an AP exam in high school, by subject: 2016
Students taking AP exams, by subject: 2006 and 2016
Sex. Mathematics and science AP exam taking varies by students’ sex (Figure 1-6). Although the students who took calculus AB, statistics, and chemistry exams were about evenly split by sex in 2016, at advanced levels, male students predominated, representing 58% of all calculus BC takers, 71% of physics 2, 76% of physics C: electricity and magnetism, and 72% of physics C: mechanics. Male students also outnumbered their female counterparts in computer science, with 77% of computer science A exam takers being male students. In contrast, female students took a larger share of exams in biology (61%) and environmental science (55%).
Percentage distribution of high school students taking an AP exam in mathematics or science, by sex: 2016
AP = Advanced Placement.
The College Board, https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/misc/ap/national-summary-2016.xlsx, accessed 10 March 2017.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Demographic Differences in Access to Advanced Mathematics and Science Courses: Civil Rights Data
The 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) is a survey of all public schools and school districts in the United States that is conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The survey measures various factors that affect education equity and opportunity for students, including access to advanced mathematics and science courses (U.S. Department of Education 2016b). Overall, the CRDC shows that access to higher-level mathematics and science courses in the United States is not equal. Nationwide, 78% of high schools offer algebra 2, 48% offer calculus, 72% offer chemistry, and 60% offer physics (Table 1-22). In addition, these data show that schools with high black and Latino enrollment offer less access to high-level mathematics and science courses than schools with low black and Latino enrollment. For example, 56% of high schools with low black and Latino student enrollment offer calculus, compared with 33% of high schools with high black and Latino enrollment.