Latino and African-American students were less likely to pass algebra 1 and less likely to attend high schools that offer advanced math or science classes than their white and Asian peers, according to new data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based education policy nonprofit, said the new federal data “is maddening.”
“We have math and science geniuses in our low-income communities and in schools that serve students of color. We need to give those students the tools to thrive,” he said. “This should be at the center of our conversation when we talk about equity.”
The data, based on the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection survey of U.S. public schools reveals the following:
- African-American students make up 17 percent of the overall 8th grade enrollment, but only 11 percent of those enrolled in algebra 1.
- Latinos made up 25 percent of the overall enrollment but only 18 percent of those taking algebra 1.
- Eighty five percent of white students passed algebra 1 in 8th grade, while only 65 percent of African-American students did. Asian and Latino students were nearly tied, at 74 percent and 72 percent respectively.
Smith pointed to several reasons for the disparities, including:
- Funding inequities that leave some schools with well-equipped classrooms and science labs and others without.
- A shortage of experienced math and science teachers at schools that serve students of color.
- Inadequate preschools and daycares that leaves many low-income, African-American and Latino students unprepared for kindergarten and unable to catch up academically.
- Low expectations, or “the belief that black and brown children can’t do math and science,” Smith said.
The study breaks down math and science course enrollment and passing rates by race and ethnicity, gender and disability. It involved 17,337 districts and 50.6 million public school students.
In California, some programs stand out for narrowing the math and science achievement gap. In San Diego, a math and science tutoring program called Pathways links college undergraduates with local K-12 students, most of whom are Latino and African-American. The program has shown to be effective at raising students’ academic performance.
Based at San Diego State University, the Pathways program sends about 120 tutors to 15 schools a year, serving more than 4,000 students annually. Tutors work in classrooms alongside the teachers, and are paired with students who are lagging academically.
“We’ve found that beyond the academics, it really helps having another caring person in the classroom to support student learning,” said Nadia Rohlinger, the program coordinator. “To have a near-peer who looks like you, has had similar experiences, says to students, ‘You know what? I’m here, I go to college and you can do it, too,’ … it just works on a whole different level.”
Based on surveys from teachers and students, those students enrolled in the Pathways program raised their grades and had higher attendance rates on days that the tutors were in class, she said.
“That’s huge,” she said. “And heartwarming. We really feel we’re making a difference.”
The federal survey found that high schools that had majority African-American or Latino enrollment were less likely to offer math and science classes at all levels except algebra 1, especially at the advanced levels. Only 38 percent of predominantly minority schools offered calculus, compared to 50 percent of all high schools. Just over half — 51 percent — offered physics, compared to 60 percent of high schools overall.
The data also showed a stark gap between students learning English and other students. English learners were underrepresented in chemistry, physics, calculus, advanced math and algebra 2, although not lower-level classes like in algebra 1, geometry and biology.
There was some good news. Girls did almost as well as boys in math and science class enrollment, even outnumbering boys in some classes. Girls made up 52 percent of students in chemistry and advanced math and 51 percent in algebra 2. Girls were outnumbered in physics, though, 46 percent girls to 54 percent boys.
The data echoes other studies of the achievement gap in math and science.
Education Trust-West published a report in 2017 that found that in California, only 11 percent of students learning English attend schools that offer the advanced math courses and these students are less likely than their peers to be enrolled in these courses when available.
Another report found that Latino students in California are more often placed in non-college-preparatory classes than their white or Asian peers and more often required to take remedial classes in college.
A 2016 study published in Educational Researcher found large gaps in science knowledge between white and African-American and Latino children, noting “income inequality and racial segregation in schools perpetuate the disparities in learning opportunities and contribute to science achievement gaps throughout the elementary and middle grades.”