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More math in school means more drop-outs

Raising state-mandated math and science course graduation requirements (CGRs) may increase high school dropout rates without a meaningful effect on college enrollment or degree attainment, according to new research published in Educational Researcher (ER), a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. “Intended and Unintended Effects of State-Mandated High School Science and Mathematics Course Graduation Requirements on Educational Attainment,” by Andrew D. Plunk, William F. Tate, Laura J. Bierut, and Richard A. Grucza of Washington University in St. Louis, is the first study to examine the effects of state-mandated math and science CGRs together, and one of only a few that have looked at these policies more generally.

More math in school means more drop-outs.
Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images

Overall, high school dropout rates increased as states mandated more math and science coursework, reaching 11.41 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, compared to 8.6 percent for students without a requirement. Results also varied by gender, race, and ethnicity, with the dropout rate for some groups increasing by as much as 5 percentage points. (See Table 2 on page 7 of the full article for demographic breakdowns.) You also may wish to check out the video, "Co-authors Andrew D. Plunk and William F. Tate discuss key findings."

“Our research suggests that many students were ill-prepared for the tougher standards, and ultimately failed to graduate,” said William F. Tate, according to the July 15, 2014 news release, Study finds unintended consequences of raising state math, science graduation requirements. “Going forward, state policymakers must understand that you can’t do math and science courses if you are not in school.”

On the other hand, teachers who are unable to pass their geometry and algebra courses in high school because they experience math courses as too difficult to understand and pass may be shut out of teaching in public schools that require a teaching credential that depends upon passing a national C-Best exam that includes math even if the teacher is going to teach only English or fine arts and already has a master's degree in a liberal arts subject such as English, history, or fine art from a university or college that didn't require math courses, for example, in the college's School of Education to teach single subject that doesn't include math in any course, for example, literature, journalism, or history.

Before 1978 teachers could earn master's degrees in their single subject field from colleges that had core courses that didn't require math courses in the School of Education or Humanities to finish a degree or graduate degree. Instead, students took courses in a foreign language (or two foreign languages for a PhD degree) if the school didn't require math courses. Some colleges offered a core science course to liberal arts/humanities majors that was more general biology or history of science and didn't have equations to solve in the course.

The person at a disadvantage is the high verbal achiever who is not able to understand math or number concepts but who has no trouble analyzing literature, history, or other subjects not using math. To get a teaching credential to teach in high school, no national exam was required before 1978. And many teachers could be "grandfathered in" who had their degrees and applied for a credential before that year without taking a test that included math, although many teachers scored high on verbal tests.

There also are students who pick up similar experiences from parents who also had problems learning math starting with 5th grade level math. If a mother repeats to her daughter that she dropped out of 5th grade math because she didn't understand it, or the dad tells his child he dropped out of elementary school because math was too hard in a specific grade, the child may incorporate the same math anxiety, or may be predisposed genetically to having problems understanding math but excelling far beyond the average student in other areas such as verbal, hands-on, music, mechanical, or art/illustration abilities, depending upon genetics and the wiring of the individual's brain.

For students exposed to higher math and science graduation requirements who do graduate, there was no across-the-board boost in college enrollment or degree attainment, at least in the short term

While researchers did not find any overall association between higher CGRs and subsequent college enrollment and degree attainment, they did find some differences in subgroups based on sex and race/ethnicity. Specifically, higher CGRs were associated with a decrease in the likelihood that black women and Hispanic men and women would enroll in college after graduating from high school. However, higher CGRs were associated with an increase in the likelihood that Hispanics and non-migrant black women who enrolled in college would earn a degree. (In this case, non-migrants refers to students who were born in the state in which they attended high school.)

To examine the effects of state-mandated CGRs on educational attainment, researchers looked at student outcomes in 44 states where CGRs were mandated in the 1980s and 1990s, utilizing data from the U.S. Census, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Education Commission of the States. The researchers used individual-level data to examine how factors such as sex, race/ethnicity, and interstate migration might influence how CGRs affect educational attainment.

“Policymakers must anticipate unintended consequences from more demanding content and more rigorous requirements,” said Andrew D. Plunk, according to the news release. “We should also rethink what it means to be an at-risk student. To be effective, these measures will likely require academic and social support for a broad range of students, as well as change at the K-8 level.” For further information see, "Intended and Unintended Effects of State-Mandated High School Science and Mathematics Course Graduation Requirements on Educational Attainment."

Authors of the study include Andrew D. Plunk, who is a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. William F. Tate is the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts and Sciences, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and vice provost for graduate education at Washington University in St. Louis. Laura J. Bierut is the Alumni Endowed Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis. Richard A. Grucza is an associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.

Funding supporting the study came from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Washington University Institute for Public Health. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national professional organization devoted to the scientific study of education. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.

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