Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Middle School Minorities Achievement Gap in Math and Its Effect on College Success

On an email loop of my friend Maria's Natural Math community, there is a discussion going on right now about some research that taking advanced math, particularly calculus, in high school leads to greater success in science classes in college.  But I think the path to calculus in high school begins earlier, particularly with the math instruction students get in middle schools.  And several articles or reports published lately suggest that advanced math instruction in middle schools is problematic for many ethnic minorities, particularly African-American males.

One great example of this, I think, came from a recent article in The Washington Post about the school many publications list as the best public high school in the country, the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County (outside Washington DC).  While the school is almost universally lauded for the quality and subsequent success of its graduates, it has come under fire recently for the low percentage of black and Hispanic students, despite several years of a concerted minority outreach and recruitment program.  While blacks and Hispanics represent about one third of all students in the surrounding public schools, they make up only 4% of the TJ population.  Approximately 90% of students are Asian or white (with Asians accounting for a slight majority of that number), while the remaining students categorize themselves as "multi-racial."

The school's explanation for such a dramatic under-enrollment of blacks and Hispanics?  One of the pre-requisites for applying to Thomas Jefferson is that the student passed Algebra in middle school.  School officials claim that there is not a large pool of black or Hispanic middle school students with Algebra already under their belts from which they can recruit.  So should Thomas Jefferson drop that requirement for underrepresented minorities, or should the area middle schools do a better job of getting more of those students through Algebra?  (For comparison, the state-wide magnet program at the the residential North Carolina School for Math and Science has about a 10% black, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Native American population; that high school strongly recommends, but does not require, Algebra.)

This issue has been under a lot of discussion here in Wake County, because recent data shows that in previous years, where teacher recommendations were a major factor in admittance to advanced math classes, Asian and white students were admitted to Algebra at much higher rates than other minorities.  In 2008, over half of all test-qualified white or Asian students were enrolled in Algebra 1 in 8th grade, while among black and Hispanic students with similar test scores, only 40% went on to Algebra.  Things were even worse in 2006, where only 19% of high-scoring black male students were placed into advanced math.  This led to a policy change this year where students were placed into math classes purely on math scores, rather than considering teacher recommendations (although the effects won't begin to show up in Algebra until next year, because they still have a requirement for students to complete pre-algebra before entering the Algebra 1 class).  For a detailed analysis of this data, see the article entitled "Math Placement and Institutional Racism in Wake County Schools?" on the excellent blog "Barbara's Take on Wake."

It will be interesting to see the data in a couple years about what happens with this policy change.  Is it really true, as Barbara suggests, that the WCPSS has institutional racism in terms of minorities in math?  Or do the teachers know something that the test scores don't show?  Of course, if we refused to allow failure and gave minority students additional time, if necessary, to complete such classes, that might be the best of both worlds.  But as my blog posts of November 14  and November 21 demonstrate, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.

But this only deals with the under-represented minorities who are actually scoring well on their math tests.  According to a recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban school districts, among the urban school systems participating in the study, only about 12% of black males tested at or above the Proficient level in 8th grade math; at least 50% of 8th grade urban black males scored below the Basic level.  According to CGCS, this eventually leads to black men accounting for only 5% of all college students in 2008.

I don't know the answer to all this.  But it is a troubling question to examine.

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