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Data Show Disparities in Access to High-Level STEM Courses

New federally collected data show racial and ethnic disparities in access to higher-level courses in science and mathematics. This is just one set of findings from the huge amount of nationwide data gathered from schools and districts by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

In an EdWeek story published today, we examine in great detail grade retention, finding strong differences in the rates of students repeating a grade across race and ethnicity. In the most stark example, a full 56 percent of all 4th graders held back at the end of the 2009-10 academic year were African-American. This comes even as black students accounted for just one-fifth of all students in the data set. (The OCR data came from nearly 7,000 school districts and reflect about 85 percent of all public school students. OCR collects such data roughly every two years, and for this round, substantially expanded the type of information gathered.) Our story was based on an EdWeek analysis of the raw data, which was for the 2009-10 academic year.

Our story also includes some quick analysis of Algebra 1. Here, the data suggest that disproportionately low numbers of black 7th and 8th graders took introductory algebra. Meanwhile, about one-quarter of all 9th and 10th graders failed the subject, the data show, with higher failure rates for black and Hispanic students than for whites and Asians.

Several researchers urged caution, however, in interpreting algebra pass-fail rates, noting that the rigor of algebra courses varies widely and that some schools may be overly generous in giving a passing grade.

(You can learn more about the federal Civil Rights Data Collection here.)

In this blog post, I'm going to focus on some further analysis conducted by the Education Department on access to math and science courses.

Calculus was much less likely to be offered in high schools that serve mainly black and Hispanic students, the department says. According to the analysis, while 55 percent of high schools with the lowest black and Hispanic enrollments offered calculus, the figure was just 29 percent for high schools that had the highest enrollments of those student populations.

Meanwhile, there was also a contrast in the availability of both physics and Algebra 2 based on race and ethnicity. Algebra 2 was available in 82 percent of low-minority schools, but in 65 percent of high-minority schools. Physics was offered in 66 percent of low-minority schools, but 40 percent of high-minority schools.

The data set also looks at access to Algebra 2 across large urban districts and found some interesting contrasts in overall access. In New York City, just 22 percent of public high schools offer Algebra 2. Meanwhile, in the Chicago district, it's available in 84 percent of schools, and 91 percent of those in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district.

In looking at the same urban districts, Algebra 2 was more frequently offered in New York City's low-minority schools (35 percent) than high-minority schools (10 percent). In Chicago, the availability was about the same. For Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Algebra 2 was available in 100 percent of low-minority schools and 91 percent of high-minority schools.

The OCR data also focus on other issues, including suspensions and expulsions. Here it finds, for example, that black students are far more likely than whites to face these consequences.

"The power of the data is not only in the numbers themselves, but in the impact it can have when married with the courage and the will to change," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise."

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