May 18 2021

Inequitable Opportunity to Learn: Access to Advanced Mathematics and Science Courses

Research has consistently shown that students’ ability to thrive and their achievement are improved when they have sufficient access to advanced curricular opportunities. College enrollment, retention, and degree completion rates are higher for students who have taken larger numbers of advanced high school mathematics and science courses compared to students who have taken fewer or less rigorous courses. Students who have been exposed to high-quality college preparatory classes also receive higher earnings once they enter the labor market, regardless of their race. Evidence further suggests that a quality curriculum is a driver of overall student achievement.

Yet equitable access to advanced courses remains out of reach for many students, particularly students of color and students from low-income families. Students assigned to lower-level courses show reduced achievement outcomes and increased achievement gaps over time when compared to peers with similar initial achievement levels who are assigned to higher-level courses. Schools serving less advantaged students often offer fewer such courses, thus creating inequitable opportunities to learn challenging content.

State-level data show large differences across states in access to advanced coursework. In 18 states, the disparity in access to Calculus is 20 percentage points or more for schools with low enrollment of students of color compared to those with high enrollment of students of color. Similar trends are seen for science courses. In 15 states, the difference in the percentage of schools with low student of color enrollment compared to high student of color enrollment that offer Physics is 20 points or more.

These inequities in student access help to explain the disparity between the achievement of historically underserved students, such as students of color and students from low-income families, and their peers. Inequitable access to a quality curriculum can be a function of a lack of resources, an inadequate supply of sufficiently prepared teachers (which is particularly common in shortage fields in high-need districts), and biased assumptions about what curriculum would benefit different groups of students. Closing achievement gaps is dependent upon the ability to create equitable access to rigorous courses in mathematics and science for all students. This report, the second in a series analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, documents the extent to which high schools serving large percentages of students of color and students from low-income families offer Algebra II, Advanced Math, Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics courses.

Findings

  • High schools with a high proportion of students of color are less likely to offer advanced mathematics and science courses than schools with a low proportion of students of color. For example, only 52% of schools with high student of color enrollment offer Calculus compared to 76% of schools with low student of color enrollment, and only 67% of schools with high student of color enrollment offer Physics compared to 84% of schools with low student of color enrollment.
  • High schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families are less likely to offer advanced mathematics and science courses than schools with a low proportion of students from low-income families. For example, only 45% of high schools enrolling a high proportion of students from low-income families offer Calculus compared to 87% of high schools enrolling a low proportion of students from low-income families. Only 61% of high schools enrolling a high proportion of students from low-income families offer Physics compared to 92% of high schools enrolling a low proportion of students from low-income families.

Key Policy Strategies for Increasing Student Access to Advanced Courses

  1. At the state and local levels, annually review the extent to which a rigorous and engaging curriculum is provided across k–12 and to what degree all students have access to this kind of curriculum, including advanced mathematics and science courses.
  2. Establish adequate and stable state and federal funding streams to support high schools’ efforts to increase student access to advanced courses.
  3. Support service scholarships, loan forgiveness programs, and teacher residency programs that cover the cost of tuition and living expenses for teacher candidates who prepare and commit to serving in high-need schools in high-need fields, such as advanced mathematics and science, and who gain full licensure in their assigned teaching area that permits the teaching of advanced courses.
  4. Provide more competitive compensation to recruit teachers into high-need schools in high-need fields, such as advanced mathematics and science.

Inequitable Opportunity to Learn: Access to Advanced Mathematics and Science Courses by Melanie Leung, Jessica Cardichon, Caitlin Scott, and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.