Science, Math Play Key Roles in High School Coursework

By Catherine Gewertz — April 13, 2011 1 min read
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The latest NAEP high school transcript study has some nice news and some not-so-nice news, but much of it is unsurprising. For the full-fledged story, see the one my colleague Caralee Adams wrote.

You’ll see that more students, including minority students, are taking more challenging curriculum sequences, and accumulating more credits, though ethnic and racial gaps persist. The portion of students taking what the NAEP folks consider a “midlevel” curriculum—four years of English; three of social studies; one of foreign language; three years of math, including Algebra I and geometry; and three years of science, including at least two courses in biology, chemistry, or physics—has risen from one-quarter in 1990 to just under half in 2009. Scores on the 12th grade NAEP correlate with the level of rigor in students’ high school coursetaking. Still, one-quarter of graduating students fall short of even a “standard” curriculum (four years of English and three each of science, math, and social studies, with no particular course requirements in those categories).

The report highlights the pivotal role math and science play in students’ academic careers. When students fall short of the lowest of NAEP’s three levels of challenging curriculum, science is most often the subject they’re missing. And girls are missing it more often than boys. Students who took chemistry in 9th grade performed much better on the NAEP science exam than those who took Earth science.

When it comes to math, taking algebra I before high school seems to give students a strong advantage: Those whose first high school math course is geometry scored significantly higher on NAEP math than those who tackled Algebra I in high school. And nearly two-thirds of the students who completed what NAEP considers a “rigorous” curriculum—the highest of its three levels—took Algebra I before high school.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.