Middle School Math Should be a Door Opener, not a Gatekeeper
All students are “math people.” Yet often, the current ways in which math is taught often leaves many Black and Latino students out of the equation. All students must be prepared equally well for the full array of opportunities that await them after high school.
This is evident through the most recent NAEP Report Card, in which no state saw clear gains in fourth or eighth grade math, and instead, nearly all saw significant declines. Most concerningly, gaps grew between White students and students of color. And despite the fact that Black and Latino students show an interest in STEM, there is a prevailing underrepresentation of Black and Latino students who receive STEM bachelor’s degrees, compared to White and Asian students.
Currently, students are dealing with mental health crises and struggling to stay motivated in school. The middle school years are an urgent window of opportunity to nurture students’ aspirations and engage all students in high-quality, rigorous, and joyful learning experiences.
What Some States and Districts Are Doing To Ensure Equitable Access to Grade-Level Math Courses
To expand more equitable access for students underrepresented in advanced math, some districts have de-tracked math courses by eliminating accelerated middle and high school math classes and having most students take grade-level math classes. So far, this effort has been successfully implemented in several districts, although it has received push-back in others, and has seen mixed results.
Other states and districts offer more expansive math course pathways that include statistics, data science, or other applied mathematics courses to align with more students’ interests and career goals, in addition to traditional calculus. This expands options for students, particularly when calculus is less likely to be offered in schools with large numbers of Black and Latino students, and less likely to be taken by students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. In districts that offer more options, all pathways must be rigorous, where all students have access, and all students are supported to successfully complete them.
Many districts accelerate high-performing students in advanced math, often starting in middle school. Curriculum moves at a faster pace, and this extends student learning for students who are demonstrating proficiency in their coursework. Yet, acceleration has under-enrolled Black and Latino students in advanced courses, due to barriers like resource inequities, racialized tracking, and limited ideas of who can be successful. These students are missing out on key opportunities that can set them up for success in college and STEM careers.
Regardless of how your district is designing math course pathways, there are important considerations to ensure Black and Latino students have equal access. Middle schools should provide resources and experiences that foster strong science and math identities so that students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, know they belong and will be encouraged to thrive.
Our new brief, Fostering STEM Aspirations for Students of Color in Middle School, highlights the importance of young people developing a positive STEM identity early on for their academic learning and future careers. We also outline current barriers that keep Black and Latino students out of advanced math and offer best practices and state policy recommendations to engage more students of color in rigorous and identity-affirming STEM coursework, create positive school climates where students of color have a sense of belonging, and equitably enroll Black and Latino students in advanced opportunities.
State advocates have pushed for several polices designed to address inequities in advanced coursework:
- North Carolina, Washington, and Texas have enacted automatic enrollment or opt-out policies that automatically enroll students the following year who score at high levels on state tests in an advanced learning opportunity
- California requires school districts with eighth grades and/or ninth grades to develop, establish, and implement fair, objective and transparent mathematics placement policies
- Connecticut has revised its statutes relating to advanced coursework to emphasize partnering with families
Every child deserves the right combination of resources to unlock their full potential, and that starts with positive and inviting school climates and curriculum for all students, particularly in classes that often feel unwelcoming.
STEM shouldn’t be a gatekeeper, but a door opener. For all students to feel welcome in the classroom and become college and career ready, they must have access to equitable, rigorous, and advanced opportunities in STEM courses.