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STEM careers less likely for poor, rural students who lack access to advanced math courses

Rural high schools, small high schools and high schools that serve historically marginalized students don't provide the same access to advanced math classes as other schools, new research shows.

As a result, students who attend those schools may be less likely to pursue future courses or careers in science, technology, engineering and math and miss out on admission or financial aid to college and higher-paying job opportunities.

The findings are laid out in a new report from the RAND Corporation called “Getting Students to (and Through) Advanced Math: Where Course Offerings and Content Are Not Adding Up.” The report is based on the results of nationally representative surveys of K-12 school principals and math teachers from the 2021-22 school year.

The results of the survey – supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – come near the close of the school year when students across the nation are preparing for state and national reading and math tests. Schools are under pressure to make up ground lost during remote teaching earlier in the pandemic and other COVID-related disruptions the last few years.

Many schools are trying to catch kids up on the most basic math skills.

National test results from last year showed severe declines in math scores nationwide among eighth and fourth graders. While no group of students was left untouched by the declines, some of the most significant academic losses were among poor, Black and Latino students.

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What did teachers and principals say about math classes?

Math proficiency gaps begin early and persist in middle school, said RAND's Rebecca Wolfe. Students in high-poverty or rural schools are less likely to take Algebra 1 or pre-algebra before high school. Yet material from those courses are what students need to be ready for higher-level math – geometry, precalculus and calculus – in high school.

And they continue in high school. High-poverty high schools typically offer fewer advanced courses like calculus and AP math than other schools in part because kids aren't prepared for those courses, Wolfe said.

The results of the survey echo previous research while offering a fresh lens into student learning loss following COVID-19 pandemic school closures, although Wolfe said RAND is careful about correlating the lack of advanced coursework some high schools are offering students right now with the impact of the pandemic.

The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, found in 2019 that 43% of high school students graduated without taking math courses beyond Algebra II, the report says.

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And there's another catch.

"Although participation in advanced coursework in high schools increased in the years leading up to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, performance levels in math have remained substantially unchanged since 2015," the report notes, citing a 2020 report from Education Week.

Why does it matter?

Uneven access to pre-algebra and Algebra I can affect whether students study STEM-related fields in college and go on to jobs in these fields, the report reads. Research shows students who pursue STEM careers are more likely to make high-paying salaries than their peers.

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The report says students who take AP or advanced math courses like precalculus or calculus "are more likely to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," "persist through challenging postsecondary coursework" and "earn more money after high school than those who do not take advanced math courses."

"When talking about traditional STEM fields like engineering or going into medical research or high-level STEM jobs, traditionally those require at some point for a student to take calculus," Wolfe said.

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What role do teachers play in the disparities?

Over half of the teachers surveyed by the RAND Corporation said they want to provide high-quality instruction but need more support.

Many said even in advanced courses, they find themselves skipping over advanced content to teach more basic skills to catch their students up.

"It's not just teachers sitting on laurels saying, 'Oh well I don’t have time to get to this.' It's about needing support and not having enough time," Wolfe said.

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Can math inequities be solved?

Some of the recommendations RAND is suggesting to school districts include:

  • Investing state and federal funds in high-dosage tutoring for middle schoolers to make up for incomplete learning;

  • Providing support for middle schoolers to take Algebra Readiness through Algebra I classes;

  • Ensuring teachers align their curriculum with the classes they're teaching, and providing teachers with high-quality training; and

  • Giving parents more information on what course options their kids have.

And for schools that are having trouble attracting teachers to teach advanced classes, Wolfe said the group recommends they partner with postsecondary institutions to bridge the gaps.

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What gaps exist in access to advanced coursework?

Uneven access to and through advanced coursework isn't new. Researchers from the Center for American Progress found persistent inequities in how many advanced courses schools that serve marginalized students offer, and in the pass rates of marginalized students who take those courses.

"Even in high schools with similar levels of access to advanced coursework, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students are less likely to be enrolled in advanced courses – and even when they are enrolled, they experience less success in these courses than their peers," researchers wrote in the 2021 report.

Since students can earn college credits or stipends for college, and even qualify for college acceptance based on the math courses they take, the implications for postsecondary access can be bleak, CAP's Associate Director Roby Chatterji said.

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rural students have less access to advanced math classes, STEM careers