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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education


Raising student achievement, reducing performance gaps, and improving the international ranking of U.S. students on achievement tests from the middle to the top are high priorities for education reform across the United States. How well does this country perform in these areas? The indicators in this chapter present a mixed picture of the progress of elementary and secondary mathematics and science education in the United States. NAEP mathematics assessment results show that average mathematics scores for fourth and eighth graders have increased substantially since 1990, but this improvement has slowed down or halted for many groups in recent years. In science, eighth graders made small gains from 2009 to 2011. Overall, a large majority of U.S. fourth and eighth graders did not demonstrate proficiency in the knowledge and skills taught at their grade level. In particular, students from disadvantaged backgrounds lagged behind their more advantaged peers, with these disparities starting as early as kindergarten. International assessments have also produced mixed results. Although U.S. students have performed above the international average on the TIMSS mathematics and science tests, they have not been among the very top-achieving groups in the world.

Efforts to improve student achievement include raising high school graduation requirements, strengthening the rigor of curriculum standards, increasing advanced coursetaking, and promoting early participation in gatekeeper courses such as algebra 1. These efforts have brought some positive changes: increasing numbers of states adopted a common set of rigorous academic standards designed to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers; rising proportions of students earned advanced mathematics and science credits before high school completion; large majorities of ninth graders took algebra 1 during or before their freshman year; and the number of students taking mathematics and science AP exams doubled in the recent decade. There is still room for improvement, however: the overall percentage of students taking mathematics and science AP tests remains very small; a sizeable number of students do not take any math or science in their freshman year; and wide gaps among students from different social and economic backgrounds persist.

Efforts to improve student achievement also focus on ensuring that all students have access to highly qualified teachers, although there has not yet been a consensus on what constitutes a “highly qualified” teacher. The majority of K–12 mathematics and science teachers held a teaching certificate and had taught their subjects for 3 or more years. Indicators of in-field teaching and undergraduate coursework suggest that high school mathematics and science teachers were generally better prepared for their teaching subjects than middle and elementary school teachers. Fully certified, well-prepared, and experienced teachers were not evenly distributed across schools or classes. Overall, schools or classes with lower concentrations of non-Asian minority and low-income students and higher concentrations of high-achieving students were more likely to have fully certified and better-prepared mathematics and science teachers. Working conditions were also not evenly distributed across schools: high-poverty schools were more likely to suffer from various problems that inhibit effective teaching (e.g., low student interest, high absenteeism, inadequate teacher preparation, and lack of materials and supplies).

The majority of middle and high school mathematics and science teachers participated in subject-focused professional development activities, but elementary science teachers were far less likely to do so. Many teachers reported that their professional development activities were of short duration, lasting in total from less than 6 hours to 35 hours during the past 3 years. About a quarter of secondary mathematics and science teachers left teaching within 3 years of entering the profession; this attrition rate was more than double the rate for other secondary-level teachers.

Recent federal and state policies encourage greater use of technology throughout the education system as a way to improve students’ learning experience. The use of instructional technology in K–12 classrooms has been growing at a rapid pace. Many school districts have invested in technology such as computers and mobile devices. The number of students participating in online learning courses is also rising, jumping from 220,000 in 2003 to an estimated 1.8 million in 2010. Rigorous research on the effects of instructional technology and online learning has just begun, showing some modest positive effects on student mathematics learning, but far more research is needed to determine which technologies are effective and under what conditions.

Ensuring that students graduate from high school and are ready for college or the labor market is an important goal of high school education in the United States. Since 2006, the U.S. on-time high school graduation rates have improved steadily. In 2010, the vast majority of public high school students graduated with a regular diploma 4 years after entering ninth grade. Significant racial and ethnic and sex differences persisted, however, with white, Asian or Pacific Islander, and female students having higher graduation rates than their counterparts. In the broad international context, the United States ranked 22nd in graduation rates among 26 OECD countries with available data in 2010, and its relative standing has not improved in recent years.

The vast majority of high school seniors expect to attend college after completing high school, and many do so directly after high school graduation. Immediate college enrollment rates have increased for all students as well as for many demographic groups since 1975, although this upward trend leveled off somewhat from 2009 to 2011. Wide gaps have persisted, with black students, Hispanic students, low-income students, and students whose parents have less education enrolling in college at lower rates than their peers. Large proportions of college entrants, particularly those beginning at 2-year or minimally selective 4-year institutions, took remedial courses to address their skill deficiencies in mathematics and other areas.