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Chapter 1. Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education

Student Coursetaking in Mathematics and Science

Mathematics and science coursetaking in high school is a strong predictor of students’ overall educational success. Students who take advanced mathematics and science courses in high school are more likely to earn high scores on academic assessments, enroll in college, pursue mathematics and science majors, and complete a bachelor’s degree (Bozick and Lauff 2007; Chen 2009; NCES 2010, 2011b; Nord et al. 2011). Advanced coursetaking in high school is also associated with greater labor market returns and higher job satisfaction, even when controlling for demographic characteristics and postsecondary education and attainment (Altonji, Blom, and Maghir 2012; NRC 2012c). Analysis of the NAEP High School Transcript Study (NAEP HSTS) showed that the percentage of students earning credits for mathematics and science courses has increased steadily since 1990, though gaps among different groups of students remain (NSB 2012).[23] This section draws on data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09) and the College Board’s AP program to augment earlier findings on mathematics and science coursetaking in high school, advanced coursetaking, and differences in coursetaking among various demographic groups. The section begins with contextual information about programmatic efforts to increase mathematics and science coursetaking and to standardize the quality of these courses. This information informs the interpretation of ninth grade coursetaking patterns found in the HSLS data.

High School Graduation Requirements and Curriculum Standards

Government and education leaders from 35 states participate in the American Diploma Project (ADP), which seeks to improve student achievement by aligning high school academic content standards with the demands of college and careers and requiring all graduating students to have completed a college- and career-ready curriculum (Achieve 2012). ADP encourages states and school districts to adopt graduation benchmarks that align high school coursework with the expectations of colleges and employers. The ADP graduation benchmarks suggest that for students to be considered ready for college and career, all students should complete 4 years of mathematics coursework at least through the level of pre-calculus.[24] In science, students should complete at least 3 years of coursework, including biology, chemistry, and physics. Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these graduation requirements (Achieve 2012). Two reform efforts, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and the Next Generation Science Standards, focus on the content of the courses that students take rather than the number or level of courses. The goal of these efforts is to ensure that academic standards across states are similar and include the rigorous content and higher-order skills necessary to prepare all students for college and careers (see sidebar, “Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards”).

Ninth Grade Mathematics and Science Coursetaking

HSLS:09 provides detailed data about student coursetaking in mathematics and science in ninth grade.[25] Based on a nationally representative sample of approximately 24,000 ninth graders in 944 schools, it focuses on understanding students’ trajectories from the beginning of high school into higher education and the workforce (Ingels et al. 2011). HSLS:09 includes a heightened focus on STEM coursetaking and the high school and personal factors that lead students into and out of STEM fields of study and related careers. The data reported here are based on the base year of the study, conducted in fall 2009 when participants were in the ninth grade.[26] The base year supplies data about the mathematics and science courses that ninth graders took and about variations in their coursetaking by such factors as race and ethnicity, parental education level, and SES. The data are based on students’ self-report of what mathematics and science courses they enrolled in at the beginning of ninth grade, not on evidence that they successfully completed the courses.

Mathematics Coursetaking

Algebra 1 is considered a “gateway” course leading to more advanced coursetaking in mathematics and to higher levels of achievement (Loveless 2008; Tierney et al. 2009). An expert panel convened by the Institution of Education Sciences to advise high schools on how to prepare students for college recommended that at a minimum all students should pass algebra 1 by the end of their ninth grade year (Tierny et al. 2009). The HSLS data indicate that the majority of students (81%) who were ninth graders in 2009 (the graduating class of 2012) were on track to meet this benchmark (table 1-3; appendix table 1-8), with 52% reporting enrollment in algebra 1 and 29% reporting enrollment in a more advanced math course than algebra 1, such as geometry 1 or algebra 2.[27] About 20% of students were not on track to meet this benchmark, however, with 9% reporting enrollment in basic mathematics or pre-algebra and 10% reporting no enrollment in any mathematics course. Research suggests that students who do not take any mathematics in ninth grade may suffer long-term consequences in terms of their educational success in high school and their entry into college or the workforce (Aughinbaugh 2012; Finkelstein et al. 2012; Long, Conger, and Iatarola 2012).

The percentage of students taking coursework above the level of algebra 1 in ninth grade (29%) indicates that many students are taking this course before reaching high school. These self-reported data are in line with NAEP transcript data (reported in the 2012 Science and Engineering Indicators), which indicated that 26% of high school graduates took algebra 1 before high school in 2009, up from 20% in 2005 (NSB 2012). NAEP HSTS data show that nearly two-thirds of graduates who completed a rigorous high school curriculum took algebra 1 before high school (Nord et al. 2011).[28]

The percentage of students reporting enrollment in courses above algebra 1 varied by parental education level, SES,[29] and race and ethnicity. Students who had at least one parent with a master’s degree or higher were most likely to report enrollment in a mathematics course above algebra 1 (51%), followed by students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (41%). About 22% of students with parents at all other education levels (associate’s degree, high school diploma, and less than high school) reported enrolling in courses above algebra 1, with no significant difference among students with parents at these education levels. Nearly 50% of students in the highest SES quintile reported taking a course above algebra 1 compared with just 18% of students in the lowest SES quintile (figure 1-10). Asian students were more likely to report enrollment in courses above algebra 1 (58%) compared with white (31%), Hispanic (25%), and black (19%) students (table 1-3).

At the other end of the spectrum are students who reported no mathematics enrollment in ninth grade: 18% of students whose parents had less than a high school education reported no mathematics enrollment compared with 7% of students who had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (table 1-3). About 17% of students in the lowest SES quintile reported no mathematics enrollment compared with 6% of those in the highest SES quintile (figure 1-10).

Science Coursetaking

Biology is the most common science subject students take in ninth grade: nearly 4 in 10 students in ninth grade (39%) reported enrollment in biology 1 (table 1-4; appendix table 1-9). About 7% reported enrollment in a science course above the level of biology 1, such as chemistry 1 or physics 1. A total of 18% of ninth graders reported no science enrollment, about twice the total of students reporting no mathematics enrollment (10%). Science coursetaking also varied by parental education level, SES, and race and ethnicity, showing similar patterns to those reported in mathematics.[30] The largest differences were in the percentage of students who reported no science enrollment. More than one-fourth of students in the lowest SES quintile (27%) reported no science enrollment compared with 11% of students in the highest SES quintile (figure 1-11). Proportionally more students who had parents with less than a high school education reported no science enrollment than did students who had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (29% versus 13%) (table 1-4). Asian students were twice as likely as other racial and ethnic groups to report enrollment in a science course above biology 1 (14% versus about 7% for all other racial and ethnic groups).

Participation and Performance in the Advanced Placement Program

Several programs offer high school students the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school. The AP program is one of the largest and best known. Other options for students interested in earning college credit during high school include dual enrollment, with students concurrently enrolling in college courses while still in high school, and the International Baccalaureate program, which offers college credit for high school courses (Thomas et al. 2013).

In the AP program, students take college-level courses at their high school. Courses are offered in 34 different subjects and students who earn a passing score (3 or higher out of 5) on an AP exam can earn college credits, placement into more advanced college courses, or both, depending on the policy of the postsecondary institution they attend. Research suggests that students who take AP or other college-level courses in high school are more likely to enroll and persist in college than their peers who do not take these courses (Klopfenstein and Thomas 2009; Porter and Polikoff 2012). Access to AP courses is an issue, however. The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the AP program, notes that availability and variety of AP courses is lower in schools with higher numbers of low-income and traditionally underserved minority students (College Board 2013). Some schools, particularly small schools and schools in low-income and remote areas, may not offer any AP courses for their students (see sidebar, “Access to Advanced Placement Courses in Mathematics and Science”).

Calculus AB and biology are the most popular AP exams in mathematics and science. According to the College Board, 212,000 students in the graduating class of 2012 took calculus AB and 153,000 students took biology (appendix table 1-10). Statistics and chemistry were the next most popular, with 129,000 students taking the statistics exam and 100,000 taking chemistry. Exam taking is lower for more advanced subjects, including calculus BC (71,000) and physics B (63,000). The least common exams are computer science A (19,000) and physics C: electricity/magnetism (13,000).

The number of students taking at least one AP exam in mathematics or science has doubled in the past decade. In the class of 2012, 500,000 students took an AP mathematics or science exam during high school, up from 250,000 students in the class of 2002 (table 1-5). The AP statistics test stands out as experiencing especially rapid growth: In 2002, approximately 40,000 students took the exam, rising to nearly 130,000 students in 2012. Environmental science also experienced rapid growth, rising from 18,000 exam takers in 2002 to 89,000 in 2012.

Although the number of students taking AP exams in mathematics and science has doubled, the AP program in mathematics and science involves a relatively small proportion of all high school students. For example, 17% of all students in the class of 2012 took an AP mathematics or science exam, with 9% passing (table 1-6).

As the number of students taking AP exams has increased, so has the number passing these exams. Nearly 270,000 students in the class of 2012 passed an AP mathematics or science exam in 2012 compared with about 155,000 in 2002 (table 1-5). Although increasing numbers of students are taking and passing AP exams, passing rates have declined or remained steady in most mathematics and science subjects. The overall pass rate for any AP mathematics or science exam dropped from 62% in 2002 to 54% in 2012. The two most popular exams, calculus AB and biology, showed the largest decreases, with average passing rates dropping by 9 percentage points for calculus AB and 13 percentage points for biology since 2002. In contrast, passing rates for exams in more advanced subjects have remained steady or even increased, with average passing rates remaining steady for calculus BC and physics B and increasing by about 7 percentage points for both physics C exams.

AP exams covering more advanced material, such as calculus BC and physics, are taken by fewer students, but the pass rates are much higher. For example, 70,000 students in the class of 2012 took the calculus BC exam; more than 200,000 took the relatively less demanding calculus AB exam. The pass rate for calculus BC was 82%, compared with 57% for calculus AB (table 1-5). In science, about 13,000 students in the class of 2012 took the physics C: electricity/magnetism exam; more than 150,000 students took the AP biology exam. The pass rate for physics C was 71%, much higher than the passing rate for AP biology (49%).

AP Exam Taking by Sex and Race and Ethnicity

The proportion of male and female students taking particular AP exams differs by test subject (figure 1-12). Male students are more likely than female students to take AP exams in advanced subjects, including calculus BC (59% versus 41%), physics B (65% versus 35%), and both physics C exams (about 75% versus 25%). Similar percentages of male and female students took AP exams in calculus AB and statistics. Female students took AP exams at higher rates than male students in biology (59% versus 41%) and environmental science (55% versus 45%). Computer science A showed the largest difference in exam taking by sex, with a distribution of 81% of male students and 19% of female students.

Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented among AP exam takers. Although black students made up about 15% of the 2012 graduating class, they comprised less than 8% of students taking any AP mathematics or science exam (appendix table 1-10). Black students were particularly underrepresented in the exam-taking population for AP exams in calculus BC and both physics C exams, accounting for only about 3% of the students taking those exams. Hispanic students, who made up about 18% of the class of 2012, were also underrepresented in the AP exam-taking population. Their representation among AP exam takers ranged from a high of 15% for environmental science to a low of 8% for calculus BC and 7% for physics C: electricity/magnetism. Conversely, Asian students are overrepresented among AP exam takers. Asian students accounted for about 6% of the class of 2012 but accounted for about 30% of the exam takers in physics C: electricity/magnetism, calculus BC, and computer science A. Their lowest representation among exam takers was 13% for environmental science.

[23] The transcript studies reported in 2012 have not been updated since then.
[24] A recent NCES study of algebra and geometry curricula in the nation’s high schools found substantial variation in rigor and curriculum coverage among these courses (Brown et al. 2013). For more information, see
[25] NCES established the Secondary Longitudinal Studies Program (SLSP) to study the educational, vocational, and personal development of young people beginning with their high school years and following them over time into adult roles and responsibilities. Thus far, the SLSP consists of five major studies: the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS:72); High School and Beyond (HS&B); the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88); the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002); and the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09). More information about each of these studies is available at
[26] The first follow-up collection of HSLS:09 was conducted in spring 2012 when most sample members were in the eleventh grade. Data from this collection were not available at the time of publication. Future follow-ups will include collection and coding of high school transcripts in 2013 and a second follow-up in 2016 when most sample members will be 3 years beyond high school graduation. Additional follow-ups are currently planned to at least age 26.
[27] It is important to note that the data from HSLS indicate the percentage of students who enrolled in algebra in ninth grade but not the percentage who passed the course.
[28] NAEP HSTS identifies three curriculum levels based on the types of courses students take: standard, midlevel, and rigorous. A rigorous mathematics curriculum includes 4 years of mathematics including up to at least pre-calculus (Nord et al. 2011).
[29] Socioeconomic status (SES) is a composite variable derived from parental education level, parental occupation, and family income. The quintile measure divides the SES distribution into five equal groups. Quintile 1 corresponds to the lowest one-fifth of the population and quintile 5 corresponds to the highest. For this report, the middle three quintiles are combined to form one category.
[30] White students were equally likely to report enrollment in biology 1 or earth/environmental/physical science in ninth grade (36% each), whereas students in other racial and ethnic groups were more likely to report enrollment in biology 1: 35% of black students and 44% of Hispanic students reported enrollment in biology 1 compared with 27% and 24%, respectively, in earth/environmental/physical science. Asian students were the most likely to report enrollment in biology 1 (51%) and the least likely to report enrollment in environmental/physical science (17%). Research does not indicate why this coursetaking pattern is different for whites compared with other groups.