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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education


Student Learning in Mathematics and Science

Gains in average mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) between 2007 and 2009 leveled off for grade 4 and continued for grade 8. For 12th graders, average mathematics scores improved from 2005 to 2009.

  • From 1990 to 2007, average mathematics scores increased by 27 points for fourth graders. Scores then leveled off in 2009 across almost all demographic groups and performance levels and among students at public and private schools.
  • At grade 8, average mathematics scores steadily gained 20 points from 1990 to 2009, with improvement for most demographic groups, performance levels, and school types.
  • At grade 12, average mathematics scores improved by 3 points from 2005 to 2009, with improvement patterns similar to those of eighth graders.

Score gaps among demographic groups narrowed over time but remained substantial.

  • At grades 4, 8, and 12, white and Asian/Pacific Islander students had significantly higher scores than their black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native counterparts. Students from higher income families also performed significantly better than their peers from lower income families. Although boys scored higher than girls, the differences were relatively small.
  • At grade 4, some gaps narrowed over time. Between 1990 and 2009, the score gap between white and black students fell from 32 to 26 points, the score gap between public and private school students dropped from 12 to 7 points, and the score gap between low- and high-performing students narrowed by 9 points.

Few students in ninth grade mastered high level algebra skills in 2009, according to the High School Longitudinal Study assessment.

  • A majority of ninth graders demonstrated proficiency in lower level algebra skills such as algebraic expressions (86%) and multiplicative and proportional thinking (59%).
  • Few students reached proficiency in systems of equations (18%) and linear functions (9%), the two highest algebra skills assessed.

Relatively few students at grades 4, 8, and 12 reached their grade-specific proficiency levels in science on the 2009 NAEP assessment. Science scores varied significantly across student subgroups.

  • At all three grade levels, whites, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and students from higher income families scored significantly higher than their counterparts. Boys also scored higher than girls at all three grade levels, but the difference was substantially smaller.

In both 2006 and 2009, U.S. 15-year-olds scored below those of many other developed countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment, a literacy assessment designed to test mathematics and science. Nonetheless, U.S. scores improved from 2006 to 2009.

  • The average mathematics literacy score of U.S. 15-year-olds declined about 9 points from 2003 to 2006, and then rose about 13 points in 2009, placing the United States below 17 of 33 other members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
  • The average science literacy score of U.S. 15-year-olds was not measurably different from the 2009 OECD average, though it improved by 3 points from 2006 to 2009. The U.S. score was lower than the score of 12 out of 33 other OECD nations participating in the assessment.

Student Coursetaking in High School Mathematics and Science

High school graduates in 2009 continued an upward trend of earning more credits in mathematics and science, including advanced mathematics and science courses.

  • The average number of credits earned in all mathematics courses was 3.9 in 2009, up from 3.2 in 1990. The average number of credits earned in all science courses was 3.5 in 2009, up from 2.8 in 1990.
  • Graduates in 2009 earned an average of 1.7 credits in advanced mathematics and 1.9 credits in advanced science and engineering courses, compared with 0.9 and 1.1 credits, respectively, in 1990.

The percentages of students completing advanced mathematics and science courses increased in all subject areas.

  • In 2009, 76% of all graduates earned a credit for algebra II, compared with 53% of all graduates in 1990.
  • The percentage of students earning a credit in precalculus/analysis more than doubled since 1990, with 35% of graduates completing precalculus/analysis in 2009, compared with 14% in 1990.
  • From 1990 to 2009, the percentage of students earning a credit in advanced chemistry increased from 45% to 70%. Increased rates were also seen in advanced biology (28% to 45%) and physics (24% to 39%).
  • The percentage of students taking algebra I before high school increased. Twenty-six percent of high school graduates took algebra I before high school in 2009, up from 20% in 2005.

Although students in all racial/ethnic groups are earning more advanced mathematics and science credits, differences among these groups have persisted.

  • Asian/Pacific Islander students earned the most credits in advanced mathematics, an average of 2.4 credits in 2009. Hispanics and blacks earned the fewest credits in advanced mathematics, approximately 1.4 credits. White students earned more credits (1.8) than black or Hispanic students, but fewer than Asian/Pacific Islander students. Similar patterns were seen in science coursetaking.

Teachers of Mathematics and Science

The percentage of public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers with advanced degrees and full certification has increased since 2003, but school differences persist.

  • Fifty-four percent of mathematics teachers and 58% of science teachers had earned a master's or higher degree in 2007, compared with 48% and 52%, respectively, in 2003.
  • Eighty-seven percent of mathematics and science teachers held regular or advanced teaching certification in 2007—a significant increase for science teachers from 83% in 2003.
  • Degree and certification differences persist among schools with different student populations. For example, 69% of science teachers in low-poverty schools had advanced degrees versus 49% in schools with high poverty rates.
  • In 2007, about one in five new mathematics and science teachers was hired through an alternative certification program. Relatively more of these teachers were found in high-poverty or high-minority schools. For example, 26% of mathematics teachers in schools with the highest poverty levels became teachers through alternative certification, compared with 12% of those in schools with the lowest poverty levels. (Some alternative certification programs aim to place teachers in high-poverty schools.)

Novice teachers—those with 3 or fewer years of experience—are more prevalent at high-poverty and high-minority schools.

  • In 2007, about 20% of all public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers were novice teachers. Proportionally, more of those in high-minority schools were novices: 22% of mathematics teachers and 25% of science teachers were novices, compared with 13% and 15% in low-minority schools.

Most high school teachers of mathematics and science taught in field (i.e., they had a degree or full credential in the subject matter they taught) in 2007. In-field teaching is less prevalent among middle school teachers but has increased among middle school mathematics teachers since 2003.

  • In-field mathematics teachers in public middle schools increased from 53% in 2003 to 64% in 2007. Approximately 70% of middle school science teachers taught in field in both 2003 and 2007.
  • Eighty-eight percent of high school mathematics teachers in 2007 taught in field, as did 93% of biology/life science teachers and 82% of physical science teachers.

Participation has increased in new teacher induction programs, which provide professional development and support during early teaching years, and the gap in participation rates between teachers at schools with different demographics has narrowed.

  • In 2007, 79% of new mathematics teachers and 73% of new science teachers in public middle and high schools had participated in an induction program. The corresponding rates in 2003 were 71% among mathematics teachers and 68% among science teachers.
  • In 2003, 63% of new mathematics teachers in high-minority schools had been in an induction program, 25 percentage points fewer than their counterparts at low-minority schools. In 2007, this gap narrowed to 8 percentage points because of higher participation in high-minority schools.

More than three-quarters of mathematics and science teachers in 2007 said that they had received some professional development in their subject matter. However, few participated for as many hours as research suggests is desirable.

  • In 2007, 83% of mathematics teachers and 77% of science teachers in public middle and high schools said they had received professional development in their subject matter during the previous 12 months.
  • Among those with professional development in their subject matter, 28% of mathematics teachers and 29% of science teachers received 33 hours or more. Research has suggested that 80 hours or more may be required to affect teacher knowledge and practice.

Teachers' views of their working conditions varied with the characteristics of the student population at their schools, but some differences have narrowed since 2003.

  • Half of mathematics and science teachers at high-poverty or high-minority schools viewed student tardiness and class cutting as interfering with teaching. In contrast, a third of their counterparts at low-poverty and low-minority schools expressed this view.
  • Some differences have narrowed since 2003. Then, about half of mathematics teachers at high-poverty schools saw student apathy as a serious problem, compared with 12% at low-poverty schools. In 2007, that gap had narrowed by about 20 percentage points, reflecting more positive views of teachers at high-poverty schools. The gap in reported lack of student preparedness for learning also shrank.

Transition to Higher Education

Rates of students graduating within 4 years of entering ninth grade ("on-time" graduation) increased slightly in recent years, but gaps among racial/ethnic groups persist.

  • In 2009, 76% of students completed high school on time, up from 73% in 2001.
  • The on-time graduation rates of black and Hispanic students increased between 2006 and 2009: from 59% to 64% for black students and from 61% to 66% for Hispanic students. Wide gaps remained between the on-time graduation rates of black and Hispanic students and those of white students, who graduated at a rate of 82% in 2009.

The U.S. high school graduation rate lags behind those of most other developed (OECD) nations.

  • The United States ranked 18th out of 25 OECD countries for which graduation rate data were available in 2008.
  • According to OECD estimates, the United States had an average graduation rate of 77% compared with the OECD average of 80%.

The majority of U.S. high school graduates enroll in a postsecondary institution immediately after high school completion.

  • Seventy percent of 2009 high school graduates had enrolled in a postsecondary institution by the October following high school completion, an increase of 19 percentage points since 1975.
  • Relatively more female graduates than male graduates enrolled immediately in postsecondary education in 2009 (74% versus 66%).
  • Students from high-income families enrolled at a higher rate (84%) than did students from middle-income (67%) or low-income families (55%).
  • The rate for white students was 71%, compared with 63% for black and 62% for Hispanic students.