Since A Nation At Risk was published in 1983, the number and difficulty level of math courses taken in high school have gone up. Researchers Ernest C. Davenport, Jr., Mark L. Davison, Haijiang Kuang, Shuai Ding, Se-Kang Kim and Nohoon Kwak, University of Minnesota, studied the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to determine how many and what kinds of math courses high school students take. On average, students took 3 years of math, as A Nation At Risk had recommended. Gender and ethnic differences in the number of courses taken were small. However, groups varied significantly in the types of math courses they took.
In all, 50 different math courses were offered in the 283 public, Catholic and other private high schools studied in the NAEP data. The levels of these math courses are categorized as functional (survival), basic (minimum competency), pre-formal (preparing students to go on to college preparatory courses), standard (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2), unified (reorganized Standard courses), or advanced (Trigonometry, Analytical Geometry, Calculus). More than half of the credits students earned were in the standard sequence of Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2. Twenty percent were pre-formal classes and 10 percent were advanced courses.
Although there was no significant difference between boys and girls in the number of courses taken, girls were more likely to take the standard pre-college sequence. Boys were much more likely than girls to be enrolled in either lower-level or advanced math classes.
Asians take most math courses
There were statistically significant ethnic differences in every math course category. Asians took the most math courses, differing significantly from African-Americans, whites and Hispanics. There were no significant differences in the number of courses taken by non-Asian students, but African-Americans took more functional and basic math courses than other ethnic groups, while Hispanics took the most pre-formal classes.
Asians took significantly more courses in the standard sequence than all other ethnic groups; whites came in second. The advantage of Asians over whites was even more pronounced in the advanced sequence. Forty-nine percent of Asians took at least one advanced course, compared to 28 percent of whites, 16 percent of Hispanics and 14 percent of African-Americans.
Ethnic and gender differences in high-school math course-taking are consistent with trends in higher education. Males and Asians take more advanced math classes and go on to major in math or quantitatively oriented science at significantly higher rates. Previous studies have shown that although African-American students have high post-secondary expectations, proportionately few are enrolled in college preparatory programs. African-American and Hispanic students are encouraged to attend college, yet do not receive the guidance to ensure that they are prepared for it.
Better preparation needed for low-achieving ethnic groups
These researchers conclude that standards must define not only the number of courses to be taken, but the content of those courses as well. Higher levels of achievement have generally been associated with coursework at or above the level of Algebra 1. Low-scoring minority students have too little exposure to the standard sequence of math courses, partly because they already lag in mathematics achievement when they enter high school. These researchers suggest that better preparation for low-achieving ethnic groups prior to entry into high school is necessary if gaps in math performance between ethnic groups are to be narrowed.
“High School Mathematics Course-Taking by Gender and Ethnicity” American Educational Research Journal Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 1998 pp. 497-514.
Published in ERN December 1998/January 1999 Volume 12 Number 1