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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education

Student Coursetaking in High School Mathematics and Science

Increasing mathematics and science coursetaking is one goal of current education reform efforts.[22] Policymakers are calling for high school students to take more courses in mathematics and science, particularly at the advanced level, to ensure they are adequately prepared for college and careers and to keep the United States competitive in the global marketplace (NSB 2010a; President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology 2010). Strategies to increase mathematics and science coursetaking have focused on raising high school graduation requirements to include more mathematics and science courses, creating core academic standards to ensure that these courses are sufficiently rigorous, and encouraging students to take more rigorous mathematics and science courses.

This section provides indicators of mathematics and science coursetaking in the United States. The section begins with contextual information about programmatic efforts to increase mathematics and science coursetaking and to standardize the quality of these courses. The section next examines various indicators of mathematics and science coursetaking by recent high school graduates in the United States, including trends in overall mathematics and science credits completed by high school graduates, the extent to which students take advanced mathematics and science courses, enrollment in algebra I before high school, and differences in these indicators among various demographic groups.

The primary data source for this section is the NAEP High School Transcript Study (HSTS). Conducted every 4 to 6 years since 1990, HSTS analyzes transcripts from a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school graduates. Results from the 2009 NAEP HSTS are compared to the results from the 2005, 2000, and 1990 studies. Because the HSTS has been conducted periodically for more than two decades, the data illuminate trends in coursetaking. In addition to course credits earned, HSTS collects student information such as gender and race/ethnicity, allowing comparisons of coursetaking, credits earned, and achievement across demographic groups.

High School Graduation Requirements and Curriculum Standards

The American Diploma Project (ADP) Network includes government and education leaders from 35 states. It seeks to improve student achievement by aligning high school academic content standards with the demands of college and careers and by requiring all graduating students to have completed a college-and-career-ready curriculum (Achieve, Inc. 2011). ADP also encourages states and school districts to adopt graduation benchmarks that align high school coursework with the expectations of colleges and employers. These benchmarks specify that students should take at least 3 years of science and 4 years of mathematics to earn a high school diploma and that some of these courses should be at the advanced level. For example, the benchmarks specify that students must complete mathematics courses at least through the level of precalculus and that science courses must include biology, chemistry, and physics. Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these graduation requirements (Achieve, Inc. 2011).

The Council of Chief State School Officers has documented the nationwide trend of rising mathematics and science coursework requirements to earn a high school diploma (table 1-6). In the mid-1980s, the predominant graduation requirement for mathematics and science coursetaking was 2 years in each subject. No state in 1987, for example, required 4 years of mathematics to graduate; by 2006, 6 states required 4 years of mathematics, and that number doubled to 12 states in 2008. The number of states requiring 4 years of science to graduate jumped from 0 in 1987 to 1 in 2006 and 4 in 2008. More than half of states (27) required 3 years of science to graduate in 2008, a substantial increase from the 3 states with that requirement in 1987.

While graduation requirements for mathematics and science coursetaking show an upward trend, a recent ACT report (2010) found that nearly half of high school seniors planning to attend college had not completed the advanced courses necessary to enroll in credit-bearing college courses. Thus, ADP continues its efforts not only to increase the number of mathematics and science courses required to graduate, but also to have states specify that some of these courses be at an advanced level.

A complementary reform effort, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, focuses on the content of the courses that students take rather than the number or level of courses. Its goal is to ensure that academic standards across states are similar and that they include the rigorous content and higher order skills necessary to prepare all students for college and careers (see sidebar "Common Core State Standards").

Mathematics and Science Coursetaking in High School

HSTS distinguishes between two levels of mathematics and science courses: general and advanced.[23] General-level courses include introductory content needed for more advanced courses. General mathematics includes courses such as basic mathematics, prealgebra, algebra I, and geometry. General science courses include science survey, introduction to physics, and biology 1.

Advanced courses include higher level content and are sometimes the second-year courses in a subject.[24] For example, advanced mathematics courses include algebra II, precalculus/analysis, trigonometry, statistics and probability, and calculus. Advanced science courses include advanced biology, chemistry, and physics. (Engineering is considered an advanced course and often is grouped with advanced science courses for analysis, as it is in this section.)

Researchers and policymakers suggest that it is not enough simply to require students to earn more credits in mathematics and science; students also need to earn credits in advanced courses if goals for improved mathematics and science education and outcomes are to be met. Advanced mathematics and science coursetaking is a strong predictor of students' educational success. For example, students who take advanced mathematics and science courses in high school are more likely to earn higher scores on academic assessments, enroll in college, pursue mathematics and science majors in college, and complete a bachelor's degree (Bozick and Lauff 2007; Chen 2009; NCES 2010, 2011; Nord et al. 2011).

Trends in Total Science and Mathematics Credits Earned

Data from HSTS show that the graduating class of 2009 continued the upward trend of having earned more total credits in mathematics and science.[25] The average number of credits earned for all mathematics courses was 3.9 in 2009, up from 3.2 in 1990 (figure 1-5) The average number of credits earned for all science courses was 3.5 in 2009, up from 2.8 in 1990.

Trends in Advanced Science and Mathematics Credits Earned

HSTS data also show that U.S. high school students are taking increasing numbers of advanced mathematics and science courses. The average number of credits earned by high school graduates in advanced mathematics courses increased from 0.9 in 1990 to 1.7 in 2009 (figure 1-5). Graduates in 1990 earned an average of 1.1 credits in advanced science and engineering courses, compared with 1.9 credits in 2009.

Credits earned for advanced mathematics courses. From 1990 to 2009, the percentages of students taking advanced mathematics courses increased substantially (figure 1-6). For example, 76% of all graduates earned a credit for algebra II in 2009 compared to 53% of all graduates in 1990. The percentage of students taking and completing precalculus/analysis has more than doubled since 1990: 35% in 2009 compared to 14% in 1990.[26] The overall percentage of students earning credits in calculus (17%) and AP/IB mathematics courses (15%) in 2009 has increased since 1990, when 7% of students took calculus and 4% took an AP/IB course.

One reason students have been able to increase the number of advanced mathematics courses taken in high school is that in recent years more of them have been taking algebra I before high school (Nord et al. 2011) (see sidebar "Taking Algebra I Before High School").

Credits earned for advanced science courses. Many more students took advanced science courses in 2009 as well (figure 1-7).[27] The percentage who earned an advanced chemistry credit increased from 45% in 1990 to 70% in 2009, and comparable increases for advanced biology (from 28% to 45%) and physics (from 24% to 39%) were also large. The percentage of students taking advanced environmental/earth science and AP/IB science courses showed similar upward trends, though fewer students took these courses. Fourteen percent of students took an AP/IB science course in 2009, compared to 11% in 2005.[28]

Compared with advanced mathematics and science, fewer students earned credits in engineering: 3% of 2009 graduates had taken engineering in high school, up from 1.5% in 2005.

Demographic Differences in Advanced Mathematics and Science Credits Earned

Although mathematics and science coursetaking has increased for all demographic groups, differences among these groups have persisted. White students are more likely to earn advanced credits than black or Hispanic students. Asian/Pacific Islander students outpace other groups of students in terms of credits earned and percentages taking advanced courses.

Credits earned in advanced courses. In 2009, females and males earned approximately equal credits in advanced mathematics—an average of 1.7 credits (appendix table 1-7). Among racial/ethnic groups, Asian/Pacific Islander students earned the most credits in advanced mathematics, an average of 2.4 credits in 2009. Hispanics (1.3) and blacks (1.4) earned the fewest credits in advanced mathematics. White students earned substantially more credits (1.8) than black or Hispanic students, but significantly fewer than Asian/Pacific Islander students.

In 2009, females earned an average of 1.9 advanced science and engineering credits, compared to 1.8 credits for males. Among major racial/ethnic groups, Asian/Pacific Islander students earned the highest number of credits in advanced science and engineering (2.8). Hispanic and black students earned 1.5 and 1.6 credits, respectively, in these subjects. White students earned more credits (2.0 credits in advanced science and engineering) than black or Hispanic students, but fewer than Asian/Pacific Islanders.

Percentage taking advanced courses. The percentage of females taking precalculus/analysis (37%) was higher than that of males (34%), as was the percentage of females taking algebra II (78% compared to 74%) (appendix table 1-8). An equal percentage of males and females (17%) took calculus. Asian/Pacific Islander students outpaced all other groups in taking advanced mathematics in 2009. The most striking disparities occurred in AP/IB mathematics coursetaking, with Asian/Pacific Islander students (42%) taking these courses at rates approximately 6 times that of black students (7%), 4 times that of Hispanic students (9%), and 2.5 times that of white students (16%).

Gender differences in advanced science coursetaking varied by subject (appendix table 1-9). Whereas more females than males took advanced biology (50% versus 39%), males took physics at higher rates than females (42% versus 36%). Males were 6 times more likely to have taken engineering (6% versus 1%). Asian/Pacific Islander students took advanced science and engineering courses at rates higher than those of other ethnic groups.


[22] In this section, "coursetaking" refers only to completed courses for which students earned at least one credit. The High School Transcript Study contains no data on students who did not graduate or who may have enrolled in a course but did not complete it.
[23] Not all high schools have the same standards for course titles and content. To allow comparisons, HSTS standardizes the transcript information. To control for variation in course titles, a coding system called the Classification of Secondary School Courses is used for classifying courses on the basis of information in school catalogs and other information sources. (For more information, see
[24] Advanced mathematics course categories used in this edition are based on the categories reported by HSTS for 2009. HSTS has changed these categories since 2005, so the percentages shown in figures 1-5 and 1-6 are not comparable to those reported in previous editions.
[25] HSTS converts high schools' transcript credits to standardized Carnegie units of credit (or Carnegie credits), in which a single unit is equal to 120 hours of classroom time over the course of a year. A credit is equivalent to a 1-year course in a subject.
[26] Precalculus/analysis includes courses referred to as mathematics analysis courses, but they include the same content as precalculus courses.
[27] Advanced science course categories used in this edition are based on the categories reported by HSTS for 2009. HSTS has changed these categories since 2005, so the percentages for each subject area shown in figure 1-7 are not comparable to those reported in previous editions.
[28] AP/IB science courses were not coded separately in 1990 and therefore are not reported for that year.