STEMing the minority gap

The gap starts early in elementary school, widens in middle school, and continues, through filters and barriers, on a trajectory of low achievement and missed opportunities. By the end of college, the number of Latinos and African Americans who graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math is a trickle: an estimated 1,688 from the University of California and California State University in 2008.

“The vast disparities in STEM preparation existing between underrepresented students of color and their peers in California are problematic in both the limited future opportunities afforded to these students and the significant loss of a large pool of talent for the state,” concludes Dissecting the Data 2012: Examining STEM Opportunities and Outcomes for Underrepresented Students in California. The report is from the Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit that offers intensive STEM summer programs at top-ranked colleges for promising minority high school students. The report is an update from 2010; the data haven’t changed much, which makes the statistics all the more compelling.

The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projects that California will need to fill 1.1 million STEM jobs in six years, with 93 percent of those requiring postsecondary degrees. Experts have fretted about the lack of students going into many STEM areas, including computer science, physics, and engineering. The scarcity of African American and Latino students in STEM heightens the problem. The two comprise 59 percent of California students, yet in 2010 comprised 15 percent of STEM enrollment in UC and 26 percent in CSU for a systemwide total of 21 percent.

Proficiency rates in math plummeted in 6th grade. Source: Dissecting the data: 2012. (Click to enlarge.)
Proficiency rates in math plummeted in 6th grade. Source: Dissecting The Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

The narrowing of the pipeline begins early, the study notes.

  • In second grade in 2011, 51 percent of African American students and 57 percent of Latino students were proficient in math, compared with 78 percent of white and 86 percent of Asian students; in fourth grade, the gap narrowed a bit as all groups upped proficiency. But by sixth grade, the slide began: 42 percent proficiency for Latinos and 35 percent for African Americans, 33 percentage points below whites and 46 percentage points below Asians (see chart).
  • The pattern has been set for algebra in 8th grade, considered a gatekeeper for students in California who want to major in STEM in college; most African American and Latino students take Algebra  in 9th grade, but of those who took  it in 8th grade last year, 29 percent of of African American and 37 percent of Latino students tested proficient, far below whites (58 percent) and Asians (76 percent). On the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, African American students in 19 states and Latino students in 34 states scored significantly higher than their peers in California.
  • Rates for proficiency and above on state standardized tests get worse for those who take Geometry (13 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 42 percent white, and 60 percent Asian) and Algebra II (16 percent African American, 21 percent Latino, 39 percent white, and 61 percent Asian).
  • In fifth grade, where science is first tested, 43 percent of African American and 45 percent of Latino students reached proficiency and above, compared with 80 percent of white and Asian students.
  • The data for high school science becomes bleaker. On state Biology, Chemistry, and Physics standardized tests, African American and Latino proficiency rates were between one-half and one-third of white and Asian students’ rates (see chart).
Low-income students did substantially worse by race and ethnicity, but scores of low-income Asians exceeded those of high-income African American and Latino students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Dissecting the Data: 2012)
Low-income students did substantially worse by race and ethnicity, but scores of low-income Asians exceeded those of high-income African American and Latino students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Dissecting the Data: 2012)

There is a strong correlation between race and poverty; most Latino and African American families have low incomes, and low-income students on average do far worse than high-income students of the same race. But that’s not the full story. Low-income Asian students score higher than high-income African American and Latino students in 5th grade science and about equally in 4th grade math,  suggesting factors such as home or school expectations. (Low-income whites do better than high-income Latinos and African Americans in 4th grade math as well.)

The study suggested reasons for the gaps in scores among the races:

  • Fewer financial resources in minority schools;
  • Less experienced and less qualified teachers; 25 percent of math classes in low-income secondary schools are taught by teachers without a credential or college major in the subject, compared with 11 percent in non-poverty schools;
  • Fewer high-level science courses in high-poverty, high-minority schools;
  • Tracking of capable minority students into less-rigorous courses;
  • Psychological barriers: a lack of role models in STEM fields and the perception that the fields are too challenging or unwelcoming to them (this gets worse in college).

Not mentioned, although documented in a recent study by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, was the lack of engaging science instruction in many low-achieving districts, where pressure to raise English language arts and math scores have crowded out science instruction in elementary schools.

Solutions: Outreach and bridge programs

In high school, disadvantaged minorities are underrepresented in AP STEM courses; Latinos, with 49 percent of the K-12 population, took 18 percent of AP science courses, while Asians, with 9 percent of student enrollment, took 38 percent. Latinos and African American students scored considerably lower on SAT tests and the state’s Early Assessment Program: Only 5 percent of African Americans and 7 percent of Latinos were ready for college-level math by the end of their junior year.

The numbers of minority students majoring, then graduating with a STEM major, is low. Source: Dissecting the Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)
The numbers of minority students majoring, then graduating with a STEM major, is low. Source: Dissecting the Data 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

The deficits these students face in high school limit their opportunity for a STEM major in college. In 2010, about a quarter of students at CSU and UC – 152,643 undergraduates and graduates – were in STEM majors; 3 percent were African American and 18 percent were Latino. For the freshman CSU class of 2004, only 13 percent of African American and 22 percent of Latino students graduated with a degree in STEM within six years, compared with 39 percent of whites and 31 percent of Asians.

So, what to do to widen the STEM pipeline? The study suggests better teacher training for STEM teachers, more hands-on science activities in elementary and middle schools, mentorships and activities like  robotics in high school, and increased access to AP courses.

The report also urges the expansion of summer bridge programs that prepare minority students with an interest in and grades for STEM careers to take challenging courses and prepare for college. The Level Playing Field Institute’s SMASH Academy, which I wrote about last year, is one such program, and, with private donations, plans to expand this summer to UCLA. But public dollars are getting scarcer for outreaches like MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement, funded by the president’s office at UC. And Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to eliminate $11 million in state funding for AVID, one of the more effective college guidance and preparation programs for minority students.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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