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Disparities Persist in Access to Math and Science Courses, Federal Data Show

By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

This post originally appeared on the College Bound blog. 

New federal civil-rights data reveal a racial disparity in access not to just high-level math and science courses, but also "core" math and science courses, such as Algebra 1 and 2, biology, and chemistry. In addition, the data indicate that racial minorities were also underrepresented in gifted-and-talented programs and Advanced Placement classes, implying that, when it comes to college- and career-readiness, these student groups are at a disadvantage.

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights gathers data about the nation's schools through the Civil Rights Data Collection about every two years, as a way to access the information it needs to enforce federal laws and provide for equal educational opportunities for students of different races, genders, disabilities, and English-speaking skills. This year's data, though, is the first since 2000 to reflect information from all schools and districts, including charter schools and juvenile-justice facilities.

While 81 percent of Asian-American students and 71 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and science course (which include Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics), only 57 percent of black students had access to a full range of courses. Less than half of Native American students had full access.

Of schools with the lowest black and Latino student populations, 83 percent offered Algebra 2 while only 74 percent of schools with the highest black and Latino offered the class. For chemistry courses, those numbers were 78 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

Further, only a combined 20 percent of black and Latino students enrolled in calculus, though they make up 37 percent of the high school student population.

However, schools nationwide still have room to improve their course offerings. Between 10 and 25 percent of high schools nationwide did not offer more than one course option for those required in the typical high school math and science sequence. Only 50 percent of all high schools offered calculus and only 63 percent offered physics.

"It's clear that there are big gaps and that we need to do more to focus on high-need populations," said James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But we're starting to get better and better data to understand where those gaps are and are figuring out where to really focus energy for college success."

Better accountability systems could be a tool in closing these gaps in access to math and science classes, according to Brown.

"Science is not a part of the adequate yearly progress measures [under No Child Left Behind]," he said. "When talking to groups that deal closely with minority populations, this is a big concern, because accountability systems are what drives student achievement and rigor in most high-need populations."

Opportunity gaps were also evident in gifted-and-talented education. Though black and Latino students comprised 40 percent of enrollment in schools that offered such programs, they only represented 26 percent of students enrolled in those gifted-and-talented offerings. Further, while black and Latino students made up 37 percent of students in all high schools, they accounted for 27 percent of those enrolled in at least one AP course. They made up 18 percent of students who received a score of 3 or higher, which generally is seen as a passing score to earn college credit.

One area where students of color were overrepresented was retention rates: While about 6 percent of all students were held back in grade 9, 12 percent of black and 9 percent of American Indian and Native-Alaskan students repeat the grade. Meanwhile, English-learners make up 11 percent of students held back a year in high school, though they make up only 5 percent of high school enrollment. This continues a trend in retention disparities that also is evident in the OCR's previous data release.

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