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How Schools Can Diversify Math Course-Taking

Students can’t succeed in math if they’re never exposed to it. And many students never get access to advanced—or even some foundational—math in high school.

New federal civil rights data and an analysis of separate federal longitudinal data by the nonprofit Education Trust find that a majority of low-income and Black and Latino students never participate in advanced math, while white and wealthier students are overrepresented in both middle school algebra and high school advanced math classes.

“When schools have algebra or advanced math in middle school, they need to make sure students can access that equitably,” said Kristen Hengtgen, a senior P-12 policy analyst for EdTrust, a research and advocacy group. “Our bigger concern is, so often when students are identified for advanced math opportunities … inequities inevitably happen around what teachers and counselors think of which students can be successful in the class.”

The results come as national and international math scores plummet to historic lows, and more states work to increase the number of low income students and students of color prepared for science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Foundational skills taught late

Federal civil rights data show that a disproportionate share of students of color end up taking Algebra 1 late in high school, in their junior or senior years, leaving them little to no time to complete a full college-preparatory math sequence before they graduate.

And, while many states and districts have pushed to expand middle school algebra, studies find teachers cover significantly fewer algebraic concepts in algebra classes in schools serving mostly Black students than do teachers in mostly white or more broadly diverse schools.

For low-income students, even taking algebra in middle school and passing with an A, B, or C doesn’t guarantee they will go on to take advanced math courses like calculus or statistics in high school, according to the new EdTrust study. Rather, the study suggests teacher approaches and school supports can determine whether underserved students progress in math.

EdTrust researchers looked at federal longitudinal data from a nationally representative pool of 23,000 9th graders at more than 900 public and private high schools. Researchers tracked students’ school environment, course-taking, academic achievement, and college and job outcomes over eight years.

They found the low-income, high-achieving students in the study who took advanced math in high school were more likely to graduate; attend and complete college; and earn more credits in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

However, EdTrust also found a majority of Black, Latino, and low-income students who had passed algebra in middle school or who scored in the top 20 percent on a math assessment in 9th grade never completed advanced math classes (like precalculus, calculus, statistics, or honors math) in high school.

Fewer than 1 in 4 of the high-achieving, low-income students in regular math classes said their teachers tried to increase their interest in math, compared to a majority of their peers who did go on to take advanced math coursework.

Some states and districts are working to increase math opportunities. North Carolina and Texas, for example, this year passed laws encouraging schools to enroll students in advanced math classes based on test scores rather than requiring course prerequisites or teacher recommendations. Texas, in particular, now requires schools to enroll all students in advanced math if they score in the top 40 percent on the state math test.

John Parrish, the director of communications and engagement at the Collaborative for Student Success, which works to scale up evidence-based state education policy nationwide, called Texas’s program “a flip of the script where you have to opt out of that advanced math placement. We think that has really, really large access implications, but also equity implications.”

The Dallas school district, which first used the practice of automatically opting students into advanced math classes based on test scores rather than prerequisites, has doubled the number of Black and Latino students taking advanced math.

Supports needed

Yet Hengtgen and Parrish both said just giving students more access to advanced math isn’t enough, if they don’t have the supports to succeed with challenging work.

EdTrust found low-income, high-achieving students who participated in advanced math were more likely to have teachers who set clear goals in class and counselors who set high standards and spent significant time on college preparatory activities.

“Students have to feel like they belong in these advanced classes as well. They need to know they are math people,” Hengtgen said. Schools and teachers need to “fight against the isolation that students of color can feel sometimes when they’re the only, or one of a few, students of color in an advanced class, or when all their teachers do not match their racial or ethnic identity.”

By contrast, EdTrust found low-income, high-achieving students who did not take advanced math classes—including Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate math courses—were significantly less likely to say they had teachers who effectively explained math concepts, emphasized the logical structure of math, or taught them mathematical reasoning.

Less exposure to such underlying foundations of math could help explain the declining math performance of high school students in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which specifically measures students’ mathematical reasoning and other skills.

“When teachers have high expectations for students, and students feel like they’re being clear in their class goals, students may feel safer in their class and feel like they’re being supported to succeed,” Hengtgen said. “And when students feel safe and supported in their schools, they’re more likely to thrive socially and academically.”

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