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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education


Chapter Overview

U.S. education reform at the elementary and secondary levels continues to focus on improving students’ learning. Reform goals include increasing student achievement, reducing performance gaps between students in different demographic groups, and raising the international ranking of U.S. students from the middle to the top on international tests (The White House n.d.).[1] Although policymakers have remained committed to these goals, strategies and efforts to promote them have shifted over time. Most recently, the federal government has given states seeking to meet these goals more flexibility by granting them waivers from the stringent standards required by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).[2] In exchange for the waivers, the states agreed to undertake essential reforms to raise standards, improve accountability, and enhance teacher effectiveness (U.S. Department of Education 2012a). In addition, the federal government created the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program, inviting states to voluntarily participate in this program designed to promote state-led reform efforts (U.S. Department of Education 2009, 2011). Through grant competition, RTTT encourages states and local school districts to design and implement their own reform plans to address their unique educational challenges (see sidebar, “Race to the Top”).

Concern about the ability of the United States to compete in the global economy has also lent urgency to calls for reform of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education (National Academy of Science 2005; NSB 2007). Federal and state policymakers and legislators have called for national efforts to develop a strong STEM pathway from high schools to colleges that eventually will expand the STEM-capable workforce in the United States (Kuenzi 2008; NGA 2011; President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology 2012; The White House n.d). At the K–12 level, reform efforts to improve mathematics and science learning include increasing advanced coursetaking in these areas, promoting early participation in gatekeeper courses such as algebra 1, recruiting and training more mathematics and science teachers, designing new curricular standards for mathematics and science learning, and expanding secondary education programs that prepare students to enter STEM fields in college (Engberg and Wolniak 2013). Recently, the National Research Council (NRC) began working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Education to develop a new set of indicators that will track national progress in K–12 mathematics and science teaching and learning (see sidebar, “Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K–12 STEM Education”).

Chapter Organization

To provide a national portrait of K–12 STEM education in the United States, this chapter compiles indicators of precollege mathematics and science learning based mainly on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education. Table 1-1 contains an overview of the topics covered in this chapter and the indicators used to address them.

This chapter is organized into five sections. The first section begins with data from a new longitudinal study of U.S. kindergartners conducted in 2010–11. These data provide a snapshot of kindergarten students’ status as they enter school, including baseline measures of their mathematics and science performance. This section then covers elementary and secondary students’ performance on standardized mathematics and science assessments, focusing on recent trends in student performance, changes in performance gaps among different groups, and the international standing of U.S. students vis-à-vis their peers abroad.

The second section focuses on mathematics and science coursetaking in high school. It begins by examining ninth graders’ enrollment in mathematics and science courses, providing information on what courses students take as they enter high school. The section then uses data from the College Board to examine trends in participation and performance in the STEM-related Advanced Placement (AP) programs among high school graduating classes. High school course completion data from the most recent transcript studies were reported in the 2012 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators; no new course completion data were available for this volume. Therefore, this section is somewhat limited because of fewer data.

The third section turns to U.S. elementary, middle, and high school mathematics and science teachers in 2012, examining their experience, licensure, subject matter preparation, professional development, and working conditions. In addition, this section presents new data on beginning mathematics and science teachers’ attrition in the first 3 years of teaching.

The fourth section examines how technology is used as an instructional tool in K–12 education. In the absence of nationally representative data, this section mainly provides a literature review, focusing on term definitions, emerging policies and practices, and the latest research findings on the effects of instructional technology and distance education on student learning in mathematics and science.

The last section presents indicators of student transitions from secondary to postsecondary education—the subject of chapter 2 in this volume. Updated indicators include on-time high school graduation rates, immediate college enrollment rates, and international comparisons of high school graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment. This section also includes data on remedial coursetaking by beginning postsecondary students, an indicator of the extent to which secondary schools prepare entering students for college-level work.

This chapter focuses primarily on national patterns and trends, but it also discusses variation in student performance or access to educational resources by demographic, family, and school characteristics.[3] Because of the unavailability of national data, this chapter cannot report indicators for many other activities that are important to understanding K–12 STEM education, such as use of high-quality mathematics and science curricular materials, time spent on mathematics and science learning, participation in STEM-related activities outside of school, and interest in pursuing a STEM degree and career. In addition, certain measures in this chapter may not capture the full dimension of the construct being examined (e.g., family poverty is determined by students’ eligibility for free/reduced-price lunch instead of being calculated directly from family income). These limitations may impede providing a full picture of STEM education at the K–12 level.

[1] The terms achievement and performance are used interchangeably in this section when discussing scores on mathematics and science assessments.
[2] The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has been due for congressional reauthorization since 2007. President Obama announced in September 2011 that his administration would grant waivers from NCLB requirements to states in exchange for state-developed reform plans to prepare all students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and leadership. As of October 2012, 44 states had requested waivers from NCLB and 33 states (plus the District of Columbia) had been approved to implement their state-tailored reform agendas. The 33 approved states include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. The 11 states with outstanding requests for waivers include Alabama, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia. The 6 states that have not yet requested a waiver include Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont (request withdrawn), and Wyoming (
[3] Whenever a difference is cited in this chapter, it was tested using Student's t-test statistic to minimize the chances of concluding that the difference exists based on the sample when no true difference exists in the population from which the sample was drawn. These tests were done with a significance level of 0.1, which means that a reported difference would occur by chance no more than once in 10 samples when there was no actual difference between the population means.