Although Texas high schools with the largest proportion of black and Hispanic students offered more advanced math and science classes than schools that serve almost exclusively white students, students of color still tend to complete fewer such courses on average than their white counterparts, according to a new federal study.
The findings should raise fresh questions about why fewer students of color complete these classes, despite apparently having access to them. Is it a function of different expectations for these students? Not enough support in helping them finish the classes? A lack of counseling? Tracking in high school?
There are longer-term implications to the findings, too, because studies tend to show that enrolling in advanced classes are tied to success in college. Put another way, these disparities help to explain why, later on in the career pipeline, black and Hispanic students complete fewer STEM majors and are underrepresented in STEM careers.
Patterns Persist Even for High-Achieving Students
For the study, the researchers used Texas and federal data to examine course offerings and coursetaking patterns in 1,500 Texas high schools, serving more than 240,000 students annually. The results are descriptive but don’t show cause and effect
Overall, they found that, in 2013-14, the average Texas high school offered 14 advanced STEM classes, up from nine in 2007-08. And Texas high schools that enrolled the largest proportion of black and Hispanic students offered 15-17 advanced STEM classes, compared to nine for those with the most white students.
On the other hand, as the percentage of students participating in federal school lunch programs rose, the number of STEM classes fell. (Rural schools tended to offer fewer advanced STEM classes and urban more, possibly one factor that helps to explain these results.)
Despite apparently having access to the classes, black students completed fewer advanced classes—only 4—compared to 4.3 for Hispanic students and 4.6 for white students.
Disturbingly, this pattern showed up even for high-achieving students of color—a subset of 36 percent of students who had demonstrated math ability in grade 8.
There are some obvious limitations to the data since access to courses labeled advanced doesn’t mean the classes are genuinely rigorous or taught by well-trained teachers. Still, the study indicates, students of color need more support and help in completing advanced STEM coursework.
In typically measured prose, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, which released the study, pointed to other factors that might be playing into these results. It thinks Texas policymakers should try to study whether such students experience “less involvement by parents, less effort in middle school to spark interest in STEM, insufficient or low-quality career advising, or less access to highly qualified teachers.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.