Profiling Coursework Patterns in Mathematics: Grades 8 to 12

Article excerpt

Interest in student coursework, especially in mathematics and science, has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, because the emerging global economy requires new generations to become more knowledgeable in mathematics and science and more skillful in mathematical and scientific thinking. It has become apparent that students who do not have adequate education in mathematics and science during their high school years can be disadvantaged in their career options. This escalating need to acquire more knowledge and skills in mathematics is consistent with the finding that mathematics coursework of high school students is a powerful indicator of educational aspiration and college performance in general and mathematics proficiency and achievement in particular (e.g., Bryk, Lee, & Smith, 1990; Medrich, 1996; National Center for Education Statistics, 1995; Rock, Owings, & Lee, 1994; Shakrani, 1996).

Traditionally, students in mathematics are classified into four categories: mathematics concentrators, four-year college bound mathematics students, general mathematics students, and non-participants (see West, Miller & Diodato, 1985). Students in the first two categories are considered college preparatory mathematics students who earn two or more credits from college preparatory mathematics courses in addition to credits in general and vocational mathematics courses. Students in the last two categories are considered non-college preparatory mathematics students who earn less than two credits from college preparatory mathematics courses. There is strong evidence that in recent years, high school students, especially college bound students, who take more advanced mathematics courses perform significantly better in the mathematics tests of the American College Testing (ACT) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) (College Entrance Examination Board, 2000; National Center for Education Statistics, 1994; Rock et al., 1994; Shakrani, 1996).

A number of studies have examined mathematics coursework as a function of student (individual) and school (institutional) characteristics. The Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY) is so far the best national education database to address this functional relationship, covering mathematics coursework in the entire secondary school years (Grades 7 to 12). Although the LSAY contains measures of both student and school characteristics, the current study focused on the relationship between mathematics coursework and student characteristics, given the lack of significant school effects on mathematics coursework in the LSAY (Ma & Willms, 1999) and the lack of sufficient measures on mathematics curriculum and instruction (in particular course-offering) in the LSAY.

Students' gender and socioeconomic status (SES) are often the focus of research in the examination of mathematics coursework. A decade ago, differences between males and females in mathematics achievement were found to be negligible during the elementary grades, noticeable during the intermediate grades, and pronounced during the high school grades (e.g., Crosswhite, Dossey, Swafford, McKnight, & Cooney, 1985; Ethington & Wolfle, 1984; Fennema, 1984; Leder, 1985; Peterson & Fennema, 1985). However, during the last decade, gender differences in mathematics have undergone dramatic changes. The gap in mathematics achievement between males and females has been decreasing dramatically and even reversed in favor of females (e.g., Beller & Gafni, 1996; Manger, 1995; National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1997; Tartre & Fennema, 1995). Recent meta-analytic reviews show that gender differences in mathematics achievement are either small (Friedman, 1996; Frost, Hyde, & Fennema, 1994) or declining over time (Hyde, Fennema, & Lamon, 1990). The decline in the gender gap in mathematics achievement appears not only in mathematics as a whole but also in various mathematical areas (see Battista, 1990; Ethington, 1990). …