High Schools Failing to Prepare Many College-Bound Students for Science Careers

Spurred by the challenges of global economic competition, many politicians and business leaders are calling for a new push to increase the number of students who earn college degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For some, the first instinct has been to go where the college students are, by offering more scholarships to undergraduates who major in STEM fields. But if they emphasize college and nothing else, they'll miss the huge number of students who fall off the STEM pathway much earlier, while they're still in high school. As the chart below shows, high schools are failing to adequately prepare a great many college-bound students to succeed in higher education.

High schools students know the importance of a college degree, which is why four out five sophomores expect to go on to higher education. And of those who graduate, almost four out five do exactly that. College was once the exception; it has become the rule.

But as students progress through high school, the number on track to succeed in college dramatically declines, particularly in math and science. Only 51 percent of sophomores are enrolled in programs defined by their high school as "college prep." Only 31 percent of high school graduates complete a basic college preparatory curriculum, defined as four years of English, three years of math, science, and social studies, two years of foreign language, and one semester of computers. Only about 14 percent earn math or science credit in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. And while the level of AP coursetaking is rising, many AP students still aren't fully prepared—only about 60 percent of students who take AP tests in Biology, Chemistry, and AB Calculus get a score of "3" or better, generally the minimum score needed for college credit.

By under-preparing a large segment of the college-bound high school population, the education system severely limits the number of future collegians who have a realistic chance of pursuing a STEM career. The chart below shows the highest high school math class taken by a cohort of students who went to college in the mid-to-late 1990s (the latest complete federal longitudinal survey of this kind).

Only 12 percent took calculus. Only 40 percent even went as high as trigonometry. The consequences are evident on the chart below. Among collegians whose highest high school math class was Algebra 2 (32 percent of all students), only 11 percent earned even a single college credit in calculus or advanced math. For the additional 28 percent of students who took less than Algebra 2, the odds were even steeper.

STEM coursetaking is partly a matter of inclination. Students with an interest and aptitude in math are naturally going to take more high school math classes and be more likely to be similarly oriented in college. But it's also a matter of opportunity. Because of poor middle school preparation, tracking, inadequate guidance counseling, low-quality instruction, or a simple absence of available courses, too many students are permanently knocked off the pathway to a STEM career early in high school or even before. This is particularly true for low-income and minority students. No one tells them or their parents that by failing to enroll in a rigorous, math-oriented college prep curriculum, they're effectively making a life decision to forgo the opportunity to pursue a career as a scientist or engineer.

The President touched on a piece of this puzzle in his 2006 State of the Union call to train tens of thousands of new high school math and science teachers. Congress has also recently moved to tie new college scholarships to rigorous high school curricula. In the long run, however, much more systemic changes will be needed. Providing all students with the preparation they need will be hard work all around—for the policymakers who have to confront a change-resistant education system, for the teachers who have to tackle more advanced subjects, and for the students who have to grapple with new concepts and difficult work. But unless the issue of high school preparation is met head-on, the latest attempts to boost participation in the science sector won't come to much in the end.

Sources for Chart on Aspirations, Coursetaking, and Outcomes for High School Students:

The percent of high school sophomores who expect to go to college and the percent of sophomores enrolled in college preparatory programs can be found in Chapter Two of Ingels, S.J., Burns, L.J., Chen, X., Cataldi, E.F., and Charleston, S., A Profile of the American High School Sophomore in 2002: Initial Results from the Base Year of the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005.

The percent of high school graduates who go to college is based on the percent of 1992 high school graduates who enrolled in some form of higher education by 2000, from Clifford Adelman,Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004.

The percent of high school graduates who complete a college preparatory curriculum can be found on Table 137 of the Digest of Education Statistics 2004, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005. The data are derived from the 2000 High School Transcript Study (HSTS).

The percent of high school graduates earning AB or IB credits in science or math is also based on the 2000 High School Transcript Study, and can be found in Robert Perkins, Brian Kleiner, Stephen Roey, and Janis Brown, The High School Transcript Study: A Decade of Change in Curricula and Achievement, 1990-2000, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004.

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Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy program at New America.