Effects of High School Course-Taking and Other Variables on Choice of Science and Mathematics College Majors. (Research)

Article excerpt

The course-taking behavior of high school students in science and mathematics has been a particular focus of educators, researchers, and professional counselors for several years. Davenport and colleagues (1998) cited three main reasons for this focus: (a) course-taking is the major student activity in schools; (b) course-taking and achievement are closely related; and (c) it is possible to influence course-taking through educational policy, through counseling, and through advising students and parents.

Most studies on course-taking have addressed its influences on high school achievement outcomes. Using data from the ACT Assessment, McClure (1998) studied the math course-taking behavior of high school students. Students who took more college preparatory math courses also scored higher on ACT math tests. Using the SAT as an outcome variable, Brody and Benbow (1990) reported that taking rigorous science and math courses throughout the high school years resulted in higher math scores. Results from other large-scale studies (e.g., Chaney, Burgdorf, & Atash, 1997; Jones, 1987; Lee & Bryk, 1989; Lee, Croninger, & Smith, 1997) reveal similar influences of course-taking on high school achievement.

Course-taking is also related to college-level achievement. Using national data, Adelman (1999) reported that U.S. college students who completed more academically intensive course work in high school were more likely to graduate from college. For example, completing one high school mathematics course beyond the algebra II level more than doubled the likelihood that college students would complete the bachelor's degree. Adelman also found that the influences of rigorous high school course-taking on degree completion were consistently positive across socioeconomic status (SES) levels and across racial-ethnic groups. In fact, influences were stronger for African American and Hispanic students than for White students.

There has been a national trend toward more academically intensive course-taking. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicated steady increases, from 1982 to 1994, in credits for all college preparatory science and math courses (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000a).

These increases were evident across genders and racial-ethnic groups. Similarly, McClure (1998) noted increases over the last decade in the number of academically stringent math courses taken. Again, these gains were evident for genders and for all major U.S. racial-ethnic groups.

High school course-taking and achievement in science and mathematics are national social and political issues. Goal 5 from the National Education Goals addresses science and math in the U.S. Of the four indicators given in Goal 5, three focus on increases in high school science and math achievement and the fourth specifies increases in the number of students--including minority students and women--graduating from college with science and math degrees (National Education Goals Panel, 1999). According to the National Education Goals Panel, there has been only a small increase in the percentage of science and math degrees awarded in the 1990s. Perhaps increases in academically intensive high school course-taking in the 1990s will result in larger increases in science and math degrees in the next decade.

Although the percentage of women in high-skilled college majors and occupations has increased over the last three decades (Eide, 1994; National Center for Education Statistics, 2000b), women continue to choose science and mathematics majors at a lower rate than do men (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000b). Also, the processes leading to educational choices seem to differ for women and men (Maple & Stage, 1991; Ware & Lee, 1988). For example, Trusty, Robinson, Plata, and Ng (2000) studied the effects of gender, SES, and 8th-grade academic achievement on postsecondary educational choices of U. …