The Gateway to Student Success in Mathematics and Science

The American Institutes for Research, with the support of the Microsoft Corporation, has reviewed the research that has been completed over the last few decades regarding the growing need for increased rigor in mathematics and science education as well as strategies for raising student achievement in mathematics and science. The purpose of this review was to identify key findings from research regarding mathematics and science educational reform that could inform Microsoft’s philanthropic investments in the Washington State/Puget Sound K–12 educational arena as well as the reform agendas of school districts interested in increasing student performance in mathematics and science.

Several key themes emerged from this research review that should inform school district reform strategies in mathematics and science:

  • The mathematics and science performance of students in the American K–12 system lags substantially behind their international peers, even though the 21st century economy is increasingly demanding greater skills in mathematics and science. This weakness in American student performance exists across all student groups, even among our highest performing students.
  • Algebra is the key “gatekeeper” for student access to the upper-level high school courses in mathematics and science that are drivers of high school graduation, college readiness, and college completion.
  • Preparing all students for rigorous mathematics and science coursework in middle school and early in high school helps to close the achievement gap among students from differing ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • Student performance in Washington State in mathematics and science parallels the weak performance seen nationally. While the state is above the national average in student performance, it lags in the quality of its standards, the rigor of its graduation requirements, and the college-readiness of its high school graduates.

A synthesis of these research findings suggests a number of powerful implications for K–12 educators as they consider ways of improving student performance in mathematics and science. However, more than any other, the most compelling implication is this:

If we want to dramatically increase the proportion of students graduating from high school with high-level, globally-competitive skills, then we must dramatically increase the number of students who achieve proficiency in Algebra in their middle school or early high school years as a gateway to the advanced high school coursework that is the driver of high school graduation, college readiness, and post-secondary completion rates.

Because the trajectory for taking advanced high school coursework is set prior to 9th grade, it is imperative that students begin their academic preparation for advanced mathematics and science coursework in middle school. The middle school years are when students decide which academic path they will take, so that broad-based, rigorous middle school coursework in mathematics and science can be a turning point for future student performance over the long term.