Cover: Access to Mathematics Learning and Postsecondary Preparation Opportunities in High School

Access to Mathematics Learning and Postsecondary Preparation Opportunities in High School

Findings from the 2023 American Mathematics Educator Study

Published Feb 27, 2024

by Elizabeth D. Steiner, Sam Morales, Christine Mulhern

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Research Questions

  1. What mathematics courses are offered in high schools?
  2. How are students assigned to mathematics courses in high school?
  3. What supplemental learning opportunities and supports are provided to high school students who are struggling in mathematics?
  4. What do high school principals perceive as barriers to improving student achievement in mathematics?
  5. What data do high school principals use to inform decisions about postsecondary advising supports, what supports do their schools provide, and what do principals perceive as barriers to supporting successful postsecondary transitions?

Achievement in mathematics, particularly in advanced mathematics courses (such as trigonometry, precalculus, calculus, or Advanced Placement courses), is important for long-term college and career success. However, many students—particularly students who are Black, Hispanic, or from low-income households—do not have access to advanced mathematics courses. More broadly, college and career success depends, in part, on access to high-quality supports for postsecondary transitions, but some evidence indicates that these supports might be unequally distributed and place students who are experiencing poverty, who live in rural areas, or who have lower academic achievement levels at a disadvantage.

This report presents timely and detailed information from high school principals about their students' access to and participation in mathematics instruction and postsecondary preparation supports nationally and across several states and between different school settings. The report uses nationally representative principal survey responses from the American Mathematics Educator Study, which was fielded in spring 2023 to kindergarten through grade 12 public school principals.

The authors provide a national view of high school mathematics course offerings, student assignment to mathematics courses, and postsecondary transition supports, and how access to different supports for learning mathematics and preparation for college and careers varies across school characteristics and across five focal states: California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Washington. A companion report examines students' access to and participation in mathematics learning opportunities in kindergarten through grade 8.

Key Findings

  • Mathematics course offerings vary by school characteristic. Access to algebra I, geometry, and algebra II was common nationally, but students in small schools, schools in which a majority of the students were living in poverty, or schools in rural areas were less likely to have access to Advanced Placement mathematics courses than students in other school settings.
  • Tracking, a practice that groups students in mathematics courses by achievement level, was common in high schools nationally, especially in Florida. A large majority of high school principals said that they used teacher recommendations as one—but generally not the only—data source when making placement decisions.
  • High school principals reported that many students participated in supplemental opportunities to learn math (e.g., supplemental math courses), but participation in career-oriented mathematics learning opportunities was less common.
  • High school principals reported that student absenteeism and teacher staffing shortages were the biggest obstacles to promoting student learning in mathematics.
  • According to high school principals, students generally received postsecondary transition supports from school counselors; these supports tended to focus on college preparation instead of career preparation. The greatest perceived barriers to all students receiving postsecondary transition supports were student motivation and family preferences and beliefs.

Recommendations

  • Expand access to high school mathematics courses.
  • Ensure that decisions about the mathematics pathways or courses into which students are grouped (or tracked) are made equitably.
  • Expand access to career preparation supports.
  • Identify ways to address the barriers that principals perceived to mathematics learning and postsecondary readiness.
  • Conduct more research to better understand how to address inequities in access to advanced mathematics courses and to high-quality career and college preparation supports.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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