School & District Management

Study: More Students Taking Tough Math

By Debra Viadero — June 14, 2000 2 min read

The percentages of students taking top-level mathematics and science courses in high school have soared since the early 1980s, according to new data published by the U.S. Department of Education this month.

For More Information

The Condition of Education 2000, from the U.S. Department of Education.

The study shows that the proportion of students taking tough math courses such as Advanced Placement calculus, third-level algebra, and analytical geometry increased from 25.2 percent in 1982 to 41.4 percent in 1998. In science, the percentage of students taking a second year of chemistry or physics grew from 4.8 percent to 7.3 percent over the same period.

I believe this reflects the fact that we’re moving away from the ‘shopping mall’ high school of the 1960s and 1970s, where basically any course would do,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington group that promotes a strong academic curriculum. “We’re coming back to what is important for students to know.”

The statistics come from the 2000 edition of the Condition of Education, an annual compendium of education data published by the department’s National Center for Education Statistics. Thirty-five of the 67 indicators in the report, like the course-taking data, are new this year.

Enrollment Trends

Other statistics in the report show that:

  • The biggest boom in school enrollment is occurring among preschoolers. The percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in preschool-center programs increased from 55 percent in 1985 to 65 percent in 1998.
  • Women, who began outnumbering men on college campuses in 1980, will continue pursuing higher education at a faster rate than men through 2009.
  • Despite the political rhetoric at all levels of government on improving education, the nation’s overall tax effort for schooling did not increase during the 1990s. Federal researchers measured tax effort by calculating tax revenue per student as a percentage of taxable personal income at local, state, and federal government levels.

John G. Wirt, the report’s editor, said the coursetaking data expand on other studies showing increases in academic coursetaking because the new statistics show how far students are going in math and science.

But, while Mr. Cross said he believes the coursetaking improvements are for the most part genuine, he also added a note of caution. “You can call a course by a different name, but it might not be of similar rigor as some other courses,” he noted.

Interesting ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research section stories to Debra Viadero, Education Week, 6935 Arlington Road, Suite 100, Bethesda, MD 20814; e-mail:

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2000 edition of Education Week as Study: More Students Taking Tough Math

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