Chiefs’ Survey Finds Enrollment Gains in Math, Science Courses

By Peter West — June 05, 1991 4 min read
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Washington--The first comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of enrollment patterns in mathematics and science courses reveals that the percentage of high-school students taking such courses increased dramatically in every category during the 1980’s.

In math, for example, the report indicates that 81 percent of the nation’s high-school graduates in 1990 had taken algebra I, compared with 65 percent of graduates in 1982.

Over the same period, enrollment in calculus courses almost doubled from 5 percent to 9 percent.

In science, enrollment in biology, typically the first-year high-school science course, increased from 75 percent to 95 percent. Large increases were also found for chemistry (from 31 percent to 45 percent) and physics (14 percent to 20 percent).

The study, released here last week by the Council of Chief State School Officers, also noted that the teacher shortages in math and science predicted in the 1980’s generally have not come to pass, although in certain fields, such as the physical sciences and chemistry, teachers are hard to find.

It also found that while in some states 20 percent to 30 percent of math and science teachers are teaching out of their field of specialization, at the national level the problem is much less severe.

The study compares enrollment data and other statistics compiled by the states between 1982 and 1990. It expands on data included in an interim version of the report that was issued in 1989.

Data on course enrollment were reported by 38 states, and data on teacher characteristics by 47 states.

The “good news,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the council’s executive director, is that despite criticisms from some quarters that the education-reform movement has had little effect on educational performance, enrollment data submitted by the 38 states indicate that the percentages of student taking math and science increased, sometimes dramatically, over the period.

Mr. Ambach attributed the improvement both to strengthened state mandates and to increased student motivation.

But, he noted, it is true that too few students enroll in a “rigorous” course of math and science instruction.

Luther S. Williams, the assistant director for education and human resources at the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the study, noted that a “particularly disturbing” finding is that in 1990, fewer than half of all high-school graduates enrolled in a second-year algebra course.

The finding is significant, he said, because advanced algebra is a “gatekeeper course” that emphasizes problem-solving skills that are “an essential base” for advanced study in science and math and are also are critical in many manufacturing and technical jobs.

Officials cautioned that the study’s findings make it clear that relying on national-level data to assess student performance in math and science is misleading because national averages mask the wide variations that exist at the state level.

The 81 percent national figure for algebra I, for example, disguises the fact that the percentage ranges from a low of 52 percent in Hawaii to a high of more than 95 percent in Louisiana and five other states.

And while the national figure in 1990 for algebra II was 49 percent, the state enrollments ranged from 33 percent to 65 percent.

The differences in algebra enrollments, the report said, can be attributed to differences in graduation requirements and curriculum organization and emphasis. It notes, for example, that in Hawaii, “almost all students take a review or informal math course during high-school.”

Similar variations were found for the high-school sciences.

“The report demonstrates that in implementing educational reform in science and math, we cannot simply use national averages as a guide,” Mr. Williams said. “It reveals that there are large differences among the states in student opportunities for learning, and that reform must be implemented on a state-by-state basis.”

The Science and Mathematics Indicators Project is a part of the efforts of the council’s State Education Assessment Center to develop a system of state-by-state educational indicators that can be regularly used to report on the condition of education in the United States.

The new study is significant, Mr. Ambach said, because it “marks a sea change in the quality of information available to the nation” about science and math enrollments.

The indicators will allow educational policymakers in the states to compare their performance and to track the progress of education reform, Mr. Ambach said.

The organization plans to update the report every two years and may ask states to provide a more complete statistical breakdown in future years, Mr. Ambach said.

In addition to student performance, the report also includes an analysis of teacher preparation from 47 states.

It indicates that 42 percent of the nation’s 110,000 math teachers majored in math, while 54 percent of the nation’s 102,000 science teachers majored in a science.

But it also noted that, at the state level, the percentage of math teachers who also were math majors varies from 17 to 62 percent, while the percentage of science majors who are teaching science varies from 31 percent to 73 percent.

Overall, it states, 9 percent of math teachers are not certified to teach math, 8 percent of both biology and chemistry teachers are not certified to teach those subjects, and 12 percent of physics teachers are teaching out of their fields.

Copies of the report are available for $12 each prepaid, from the Council of Chief State School Officers, State Education Assessment Center, 400 North Capitol St., Washington, D.C. 20001.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Chiefs’ Survey Finds Enrollment Gains in Math, Science Courses


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