The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 6, 2018

Unequal access to calculus could hinder low-income and black students

An earlier version of this post said that one-quarter of black high school students attend a school that does not offer calculus. The correct share is one-fifth (corrected 3/8/18).

Research shows that taking an advanced math course in high school can promote learning gains for students and can even increase students’ likelihood of declaring and completing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) major. In particular, black and Hispanic high school students may benefit the most from taking advanced math courses, and efforts such as the historic Algebra Project have cast advanced math course access as a civil rights issue.  But our new analysis shows that 1 in 5 black students attend schools that don’t offer calculus.

High schools vary greatly across the country, based on resources, priorities, and goals. These differences are reflected in curricula and courses available to students. Research has shown moderate racial differences in access to advanced placement (AP) courses (although racial differences in AP course credit are not primarily driven by access to those courses). But given the positive effects of taking any advanced math course, whether or not it’s an AP course, we must understand who has access to these classes.

Who has access to calculus?

Calculus courses are widely available, with 86 percent of all high school students attending a school that offers at least one calculus course. But when examining differences across racial groups, disparities become apparent. Most notably, one-fifth of black high school students attend a school that does not offer calculus, compared with 13 percent of white and Hispanic students and 10 percent of Asian students.

Racial disparities are starkest in cities

There is a 17 percent difference in access to calculus between black and white students attending high schools in cities.

In some cities, this disparity is even worse. For example, in Washington, DC, 28 percent of black students attend a high school that does not offer calculus, compared with only 3 percent of white students. Nonblack students attending high schools in rural areas are less likely to have access to calculus than students in urban settings, but there are smaller racial differences in rural areas.

Calculus is less common at the highest-need schools

There are gaps by socioeconomic status as well. Students attending the highest-need schools (schools in the top quartile of share of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch) have access to calculus at significantly lower rates. More than 20 percent of students at the highest-need schools do not have access to calculus compared with only 8 percent of students at the lowest-need schools.

Access to calculus varies more by race for students at very high–need schools (the top quartile of share of students eligible for free and reduced priced lunch). Thirty-nine percent of black students at high-need schools do not have access to calculus, compared with 34 percent of white students, 21 percent of Hispanic students, and 20 percent of Asian students. Further, black and Hispanic students are significantly more likely than white and Asian students to attend the highest-need schools.

Charter schools are less likely to offer calculus

Across all races, students at charter schools have access to calculus at lower rates than students at traditional public schools. We see similar patterns across races at charter schools as traditional schools but with lower rates overall at charters. Hispanic students at traditional public schools have access to calculus at similar rates as white students, but this is not the case for Hispanic students at charter schools.

The differences in charter and traditional public school calculus access cannot be explained by student demographics, by district poverty levels, or by locality. But most of the differences in access are explained by the smaller size (lower enrollment) of charter schools.

Racial and socioeconomic disparities in course access can affect students’ college readiness and long-term academic and nonacademic outcomes. Teachers, administrators, and policymakers should prepare minority and low-income students for advanced math coursework and invest in recruiting teachers qualified to instruct advanced math courses to high-need schools.

A student solves a problem in Crystal Kirch's pre-calculus class at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP.

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