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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education


Indicators in this chapter produce a mixed picture of the progress of elementary and secondary mathematics and science education in the United States. Although improvements are evident in many areas, overall they are slow and uneven. Gaps among students of different demographic backgrounds and among schools with different student populations have been a persistent challenge in K–12 education in the United States. These gaps are reflected in many indicators in this chapter, including teacher qualifications, school environment, and, ultimately, learning outcomes.

NAEP mathematics and science assessment results show that, although average mathematics scores for 8th graders have improved steadily since 1990 and average mathematics scores for 12th graders have increased between 2005 and 2009, improvement among 4th graders leveled off in 2009. Achievement gaps are found among many student subgroups. Whereas boys performed slightly better than girls in both subjects, relatively larger gaps existed among students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds or with different family incomes. Over time, some gaps narrowed at grade 4: gaps in mathematics achievement between white and black students, between high- and low-performing students, and between private and public school students were smaller in 2009 than in 1990.

Overall, large majorities of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders did not demonstrate proficiency in the knowledge and skills taught at their grade level. While a majority of ninth graders reached proficiency in low-level algebra skills, few mastered higher level skills. Results of international mathematics and science literacy tests show that U.S. 15-year-olds continue to lag behind their peers in many other countries, even though their scores have improved somewhat in recent years.

Efforts to improve student achievement include raising high school graduation requirements, strengthening the rigor of curriculum standards, increasing advanced coursetaking, promoting early participation in gatekeeper courses such as algebra I, and improving teaching quality. From 1987 to 2008, the number of states requiring at least 3 years of mathematics and science courses for high school graduation increased from just a few states to more than 30. By the end of 2010, 44 states had adopted a common set of rigorous academic standards designed to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. Trend data from 1990 to 2009 show an upward trend of students earning more mathematics and science credits and participating in advanced mathematics and science courses. Nevertheless, completion rates in some advanced courses remained relatively low, and wide gaps in advanced mathematics and science coursetaking persisted among racial/ethnic subgroups.

Indicators related to teaching quality show that virtually all mathematics and science teachers in public middle and high schools have such basic credentials as a bachelor's degree and teaching certificate, and proportionally more mathematics and science teachers had advanced degrees in 2007 than in 2003. Likewise, more science teachers held full certification in 2007 than in 2003. Large majorities of mathematics and science teachers in high school also had a degree and/or certificate in their teaching field. Although in-field mathematics and science teachers are not as prevalent in middle schools as in high schools, the percentage of such teachers in middle schools has increased in recent years. Mathematics and science teachers with these qualifications are not evenly distributed across schools, however: schools with lower concentrations of minority and low-income students tend to have higher proportions of teachers with advanced degrees, full certification, in-field preparation, and more experience.

An increasing proportion of new mathematics and science teachers entered the profession through alternative programs. These teachers often begin teaching before completing their training, engaging in practice teaching, or earning full state certification, and they are more often found in schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students. Nevertheless, a majority of new mathematics and science teachers in public middle and high schools participate in practice teaching before entering the teaching force, and many of them also participate in induction programs during their first year in the classroom. In addition, a majority of mathematics and science teachers participate in professional development activities during the school year, although the duration of many such activities is relatively short.

Annual attrition rates for public school mathematics and science teachers fluctuated in the range of 5–9% between 1988 and 2008. Although teachers' salaries have not kept pace with those in occupations requiring comparable education, most teachers had favorable perceptions of their working conditions. Teachers in high-minority and high-poverty schools were less likely than others to have such positive perceptions, but some gaps have narrowed in recent years.

Most high school students graduate with a regular diploma 4 years after entering ninth grade. On-time graduation rates have improved, though slowly. Significant racial/ethnic gaps exist, with white and Asian/Pacific Islander students having graduation rates higher than those of students of other races and ethnicities. The U.S. ranked 18th in graduation rates among 25 OECD countries with available data in 2008.

A majority of high school seniors expect to continue their education after high school, and many enroll in college directly after high school graduation. Immediate college enrollment rates have increased for all students as well as for many demographic subgroups. Gaps persisted, however. Black students, Hispanic students, low-income students, and students whose parents have less education enroll in college at rates lower than their counterparts.