The Enrollment in Advanced Mathematics Courses in 2019

Educators have long realized that course taking opens doors to learning and that mathematics courses in particular are the key to higher level postsecondary schooling and improved employment opportunities. We investigated policies and practices of high schools that encourage or discourage students’ enrollment in advanced mathematics courses. Also examined were the effects of schools’ graduation requirements, course offerings, and tracking practices on the patterns of mathematics courses taken by high school students. Special attention was given to minority and low-income students.

The primary objective of the study was to identify a set of alterable school practices that can be implemented to increase access to learning opportunities. The investigation found that, with the exception of a significant shortage of mathematics course offerings in rural schools, school demographics are less important than school practices in determining the courses a student takes. The disproportionate tracking of minority and low-income students into lower level mathematics sequences rather than lowered graduation requirements or lack of advanced course options accounts for their lower level of mathematics achievement in high school. Future research needs to investigate the antecedents of course taking decisions and the role that parents, teachers, and counselors play in formulating students’ plans for postsecondary education.

School Characteristics Related to Practices that Affect Course Taking

Lower SES schools and larger schools tended to offer fewer advanced mathematics courses in general and fewer semesters of calculus in particular than did higher SES schools. Interestingly, high-poverty schools tended to require slightly more mathematics courses for graduation than did low poverty schools.

Course offerings were related to urban schools, but the most significant finding was the dearth of mathematics offerings in rural schools. They offered fewer advanced areas of mathematics, fewer calculus courses, and had a lower proportion of advanced courses than did urban or suburban schools. Also, the percentage of students in vocational tracks was greater in rural schools than elsewhere.

School enrollment is significantly related to three school practices: the number of advanced areas offered, the number of semesters of calculus offered, and the percentage of students assigned to a vocational track. Larger schools offered, on average, close to one additional advanced area of study and almost one-half additional semester of calculus. And contrary to previous research, when enrollment was controlled statistically, the poverty status of high schools was not significantly related to any of the school practices with the exception of semesters of calculus offered.

School Practices and Policies and the Courses Students Take

Differences among academic tracks produced the strongest results of any effect studied in the investigation. Students in vocational tracks took substantially fewer and less challenging mathematics courses than did students in general tracks. More African American students were assigned to vocational tracks, whereas greater percentages of White and Asian students were assigned to academic tracks. Interestingly, Asian students in general tracks took more years of mathematics than other general track students, but Asian students in vocational tracks displayed about the same course taking patterns as did other racial/ethnic groups. There is little evidence that participation in a vocational track was more harmful to one group than another. The tracking effect on African American students is similar to that for White students; however, those African Americans assigned to academic tracks generally did not take as advanced course work as did White students in academic tracks. One interesting finding is that African American students who attended schools with high course offerings took substantially fewer level 1 courses than did their counterparts in moderate offerings schools.

Students of all racial/ethnic groups tend to accrue more credits of mathematics when schools require more for graduation, but the requirements do not affect the extent of advanced work for any racial/ethnic group in particular. Graduation requirements have the biggest impact on vocational students. Vocational students in high requirement schools tended to have increased years of mathematics course work and a somewhat higher ratio of advanced to basic courses taken.


To the extent that students take different amounts of mathematics course work, the differences are attributable largely to practices that determine who will take particular courses. Students in vocational tracks accomplished less than students in general tracks, who, in turn, accomplished less than students in academic tracks. The utility of tracking is controversial; however, research and policy should make every attempt to channel motivated students into advanced course work and to provide pathways for students to change from one track to another. In particular, research should focus on the roles of teachers and counselors in assigning students to maximally challenging but realistic programs of study as well as the role of students themselves in making course decisions.

Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.

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