Blacks, Hispanics Lag In Math by 3rd Grade
WASHINGTON--Black and Hispanic students in an affluent Maryland school district fall behind their white and Asian peers in mathematics as early as the 3rd grade, and the gap widens steadily through the elementary grades, a new study concludes.
The study of some 28,000 students in the Montgomery County Public Schools--financed by the National Science Foundation--found that by the end of elementary school, as many as half of the district's black and Hispanic students lacked the skills necessary for advanced-level math courses.
The findings for the suburban Washington district are indicative of nationwide problems in mathematics achievement among minority pupils, educators say.
The study also found that "participation and performance'' in the math curriculum was "fairly equal'' for boys and girls from kindergarten through the first years of high school.
However, it found, boys tended to take more higher-level math courses than girls and scored higher on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, even though girls' grades in math courses were higher.
District officials said they could not pinpoint a cause for the discrepancies. But they noted that high-achieving students tended to have more confidence about their abilities in the subject, and that teachers and school administrators tended to have higher expectations for those who performed well.
The findings suggest that schools should intervene early to ensure that all students have an opportunity to succeed in math, said Shirley M. Frye, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
"We've lost a lot of talent because we haven't bought into the theory that students have the ability to succeed,'' she said.
"I don't believe talent varies by group,'' said Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, director of the NSF's science- and engineering-education directorate.
"The question,'' he added, "is what kind of national will do we have to deal with these issues in a meaningful way?''
The two-year, $125,000 study--conducted by district officials and released here in July--analyzed enrollment data and scores on the California Achievement Test, the district's criterion-referenced test, and the SAT It included 18,000 pupils in grades 1-6, 4,000 pupils in grades 7 and 8, and 6,000 high-school seniors.
The NSF seldom funds research by school districts and has only recently begun to focus its attention on elementary schools, according to Mr. Shakhashiri.
But the Montgomery County project was important, he said, in identifying problems in recruiting women and minorities for careers in math and science. A majority of the students graduating from high school in the next 15 years will be either females or members of minority groups.
"The nation requires a good cadre of scientists and engineers coming through the school system,'' he said, adding that "quality education in math is a must.''
The Montgomery County findings are applicable nationwide, officials said, even though the district is atypical: It is among the most affluent in the country and its students score well above national averages on standardized tests.
But it also has pockets of poverty, and it contains both rural and urban areas as well as suburbs, noted Steven M. Frankel, director of the district's department of educational accountability.
"If this study were replicated in New York, or Detroit, or a small town in Iowa, many of the same findings would occur,'' he said.
Furthermore, noted Steven G. Seleznow, acting director of the district's department of information, the fact that Montgomery County students typically perform above national averages indicates that the gaps noted in the study "may be more pronounced in other school systems.''
By the end of the 2nd grade, said Susan Gross, the study's author, "a small proportion of black and Hispanic students do not manage to attain a number of the objectives needed to remain at grade level, and a small proportion of Asian and white students attain more.''
"With each succeeding year,'' added Ms. Gross, the district's coordinator of program monitoring, "a few more blacks and Hispanics fall behind, and a few more Asians and whites are able to accelerate.''
Because of the cumulative nature of math skills, she said, those who fall behind are unlikely ever to catch up.
The gap was reflected in standardized-test scores, the study found. As early as the 3rd grade--the first year pupils take the CAT--Asians and whites outperformed blacks and Hispanics, and the disparity continued through the 11th grade.
Among 11th graders in 1986, 37 percent of Asians and 20 percent of whites performed at the highest level on the CAT, while 4 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics scored at that level.
Asians and whites also substantially outperformed blacks and Hispanics on the math portion of the SAT, and took the college-admission test in larger numbers, the study found.
Comments from black students indicated that teachers tended to reinforce differences between groups of students.
"High-achieving black students reported that they had to prove themselves to the teacher each time they entered a new mathematics class,'' the researchers state. "They felt that teachers who had black students in their honors or accelerated classes saw them as tokens, or as inferior to white students in the class.''
Moreover, the study found, low-achieving students--who were disproportionately black and Hispanic--received less-effective instruction than those in accelerated classes. That deficiency, it concluded, may exacerbate the problems in achievement among minority pupils.
Students in below-grade-level classes tended to receive repetitive instruction in rote learning and drill, the report notes, while teachers expected students in accelerated classes to master higher-level skills.
"Thus,'' it states, "students who are moved into lower mathematics classes or groups will likely fall behind those students who remain in the higher group.''
In examining female and male participation and performance in math courses, the researchers found no differences through most grades.
"It is only when the mathematics requirements for graduation and college admission are satisfied that gender differences emerge,'' the report says, "with female students leaving high school with slightly less mathematics than males.''
Male students also outscore their female peers by 30 to 40 points on the math portion of the SAT, the researchers found, regardless of the number and quality of math courses taken by the students.
One possible explanation for this disparity, Ms. Gross suggested, is that boys report taking advanced math courses because they intend to pursue technical careers, whereas girls say they enroll in such courses in order to fulfill college-admission requirements.
"A lot could be done in conveying the utility of math,'' Ms. Gross said. "There are different mindsets among males and females and their parents about whether math and science are viable careers.''
Copies of a 28-page executive summary of the study may be obtained free of charge by writing the Montgomery County Public Schools, Department of Information, 850 Hungerford Drive, Rockville, Md. 20850, or by calling (301) 279-3391.
Copies of the full report, "Participation and Performance of Women and Minorities in Mathematics,'' will be available later this summer.