Advanced courses in short supply at low-income schools

As schools celebrate National STEM Day, more work is needed to increase access to advanced courses — particularly in science and math — new information shows.

The new CSBA brief, “Supporting STEM Access, Equity, and Effectiveness: Equitable Access to Rigorous STEAM Coursework”, finds there will be openings for more than one million jobs in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in the next decade. But uneven access to STEM courses for many California students presents a challenge to meeting this demand and preparing students for the 21-century workforce. The brief reports that 37 percent of California public high schools do not offer physics and 25 percent do not offer chemistry (based on data from the advocacy group Children Now). The numbers reflect a stubborn achievement gap for certain student groups, with 46 percent of white students showing proficiency in science, while only 13 percent of African-American students and 10 percent of Latino students demonstrate proficiency.

Similarly, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office report found high-poverty schools were less likely to offer the math and science courses typically needed to gain entry to four-year colleges. Further, the gap in coursework particularly impacted Hispanic and African-American students, as high-poverty schools had large enrollments of both student groups. The lack of access to rigorous coursework is especially prevalent at high-poverty schools with small enrollments.

While basic math courses such as Algebra I and Geometry were available at most schools, based on information for the 2015-16 school year, the report noted that “disparities in offering advanced math courses grew as school poverty level increased.” Similarly, access to advanced science courses also decreased as school poverty level increased. Biology, for example, was common at most schools, but chemistry and physics less so at schools with large numbers of students living in poverty.

Student enrollment in Advanced Placement classes (courses that can be taken for college credit) also showed disparities based on family income. “For Advanced Placement (AP) courses overall, our analysis showed that the gap in courses offered was widest between the lowest and highest poverty schools —with over 80 percent of low-poverty schools offering at least one AP course compared to about 60 percent for high-poverty schools,” the report said. Math and science AP classes, too, had significant gaps in course offerings depending on the school’s level of poverty.

The GAO report is careful to point out that not all students are headed for college. But for those who are, its authors recommend removing several obstacles to applying, including ensuring course offerings match those of college entrance requirements. In California, such access to advanced courses is increasingly critical for both college and careers as the need for students with STEM backgrounds grows. As the CSBA brief notes, “access to science courses will be crucial to bring California up to the national standard and fill the growing need for STEM jobs in the world’s fifth-largest economy.”