Disparities in the proportion of black and Latino students who take algebra early in their careers compared with their peers—as well as in calculus, physics, and other advanced courses—are raising fresh questions about the origin of those gaps and the best way to eradicate them.
Are the gaps primarily due to racism? Tracking? A symptom of ongoing teacher shortages? And where do solutions need to be targeted?
“If you are not preparing students to think algebraically, you are losing the game before it even starts,” said Michelle Stie, the vice president of teaching and learning for the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit providing training and curriculum support. “If you start with the premise that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a lever to accessing further opportunity, where does the school access those resources and get the support to access them?”
show that the proportion of students of color who take high-level math and science courses continues to trail that of their white peers—jeopardizing those minority students’ ability to master the knowledge they need to secure a college-preparatory diploma. And the segregation of American high schools seems to be a factor in students’ access to those types of courses.
The data reflect the 2015-16 school year and were submitted by nearly every public school in the United States.
Disparities were stark for some of the most advanced classes. Black students made up 16 percent of high school enrollment, but just 12 percent of physics enrollment and 8 percent of calculus enrollment. Latino students made up 24 percent of high school enrollment, but represented 16 percent of students enrolled in calculus and 19 percent of those in advanced mathematics. (That term excludes calculus but includes courses beyond Algebra 2.)
A Gateway Shut
The data highlight gaps between white and Asian students and their black peers that open up even before students reach high school, in Algebra 1, considered a fundamental “gateway” math course.
White students and Asian students were disproportionately likely to be enrolled in Algebra 1 in grade 8—and of those, 85 percent of white students and 74 percent of Asian students passed the course. But black and Native American students were all disproportionately likely to take Algebra 1 in high school rather than in grade 8—and they were overrepresented in those classes in junior or senior year, which would make it next to impossible to fit in multiple advanced-math courses before graduation.
Native American students are just 1 percent of the overall high school population, yet they made up 2 percent of those enrolled in Algebra 1 in 11th and 12th grades—a damning statistic.
Research indicates that forcing students to take Algebra 1 before they’re ready can be harmful. But it’s not clear whether these patterns reflect well-founded decisionmaking or policy beset by racism, or a combination.
“Is it because they’ve correctly assessed students’ ability and put them in the appropriate course? Or is it because there’s some amount of discrimination going on?” said Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “I take this as a sign that there is a major challenge, though it doesn’t help pinpoint the root causes of the challenge.”
Some experts also pointed to problems in students’ math preparation. Too few students are introduced to algebraic thinking and problem solving in elementary and middle school, and when they struggle and have to repeat algebra, it’s usually taught the same way, said Stie of the math and science initiative.
“It’s like hitting your finger with a hammer over and over again,” she said. “I think those are two important reasons why kids struggle.”
School Composition Matters
For upper-level-math coursework, it’s likely that school composition has a relationship to what classes are offered. About 5,000 high schools, the data show, had high levels of Latino or black enrollment (defined as schools with more than 75 percent black and Latino student populations). And they offered advanced math and science at lower rates than other high schools.
The largest disparity was for calculus, which half of all high schools offered, but only 38 percent of these highly segregated high schools did.
Generally, research shows that taking more high school math and science courses improves the odds that students will go on to take them in college—though expanding the number of high school courses offered isn’t a guarantee that students will take them. That could be the result of differing expectations and within-school tracking that many students of color face, even when they are academically capable of succeeding in challenging courses.
The new data also contains new information on how high school math and science classes are being taught—for example, on the number taught by teachers with the appropriate certification. Those data were not included in the Education Department’s initial takeaways this week.
But a preliminary analysis of the civil rights data by the Education Week Research Center suggests that perhaps as many as 1 in 5 Algebra 1 and geometry classes are taught by teachers who lack a certificate in the field.
That squares with Stie’s experience, too. Many schools she visits say they just don’t have a teacher available to take on advanced courses.
“Schools that don’t offer advanced courses tend to put algebra late. That could be because you have a teacher-talent gap or you don’t have the teacher prepared with the proper pedagogical content knowledge,” she said. “You can’t offer the course if you don’t have the teacher.”
For more detail and in-depth analysis, see Education Week’s additional reporting on this data release:
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2018 edition of Education Week as Math, Science Gaps Persist, Data Show