A Georgia Tech researcher asks: Where are the black students in science, math?


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Dr. Kamau Bobb is a research scientist at the Center for Education Integrating Science Mathematics and Computing  at Georgia Tech. This is his first piece for the AJC Get Schooled blog.

 By Kamau Bobb

“Stem for All. All for Stem” is the refrain heard throughout the nation and in Georgia.  The national emphasis on improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education is to ensure the United States maintains global technological and economic leadership.

Emphasis on STEM has become the cornerstone of the national education dialogue. National and state level focus is on increasing the number of students who graduate from college with STEM degrees to meet growing workforce needs.

Behind the mask of those broad and very real concerns is the withering reality of the under-preparedness of black students in the basics of mathematics and science.  The vast majority of black students in Georgia are completely excluded from real participation in the STEM education conversation. 

Not since the launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s has the United States put so much emphasis on mathematics and science education.  In the 50s, black children were locked out of many educational opportunities because of segregation.  Now, more than a half century later, there is resurging attention to STEM fields, but most black children are locked out because of inadequate preparation.

 There are innumerable high school and university level programs targeting black and underserved students designed to increase the number of STEM majors and graduates. Many STEM programs are based on the premise that exposing students to exciting applications of STEM studies will hook their intellectual interests and get them to want to pursue STEM education. Despite the efforts of these programs, black and underserved students are essentially locked out of pursuing STEM degrees.

The ugly reality is that the majority of black students in Georgia are not nearly academically equipped in mathematics and science to handle the rigors of post-secondary STEM education.

 During the 2011 administration of the Georgia High School End of Course Test for Mathematics I examination, more than half, 54 percent, of the nearly 52,000 black students who took the exam, failed. The failure rate got worse when considering Mathematics II which is the integrated mathematics course that covers statistics, algebra and geometry. Of the approximately 44,000 black students who took that exam, nearly 60 percent failed.

Math II is essentially the gateway to post-secondary STEM education. Black 10th and 11th graders who took this examination are the only sub-group of students in the state where more students failed than passed. These rates are a stunning failure of the educational system in a state where 37 percent of all students in public schools are black and the vast majority of black children attend public schools.

 Georgia is arguably two different states, the Atlanta metropolitan area and the rest of the state.  The concentration of resources and academic talent around the Atlanta area is significant.  Nearly half of all adults, approximately 45 percent, in the metro area have post-secondary degrees of some kind, as opposed to 20 percent or less in the rest of the state.  Despite the opportunities and the concentration of educated adults, the academic performance for black students in Atlanta Public Schools is grim and the racial achievement gap is thriving.


Percent of students who failed Mathematics II EOCT, 2011.  Source, Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement



















71 percent of the 2,500 black students in APS who took the Mathematics II exam in 2011, failed and only 1 percent, 25 students, passed with distinction (Pass Plus). By contrast, only 21 percent of white students failed with 79 percent passing and 23 percent of those passing with distinction.

In Fulton County, where 62 percent of black students failed the Mathematics II exam, 90 percent of the white students passed, 32 percent with distinction.  The failure rates and achievement gaps throughout most of the school districts in the metro-Atlanta area are astonishing.

 The consequence of this reality is that black students are excluded from much of the STEM conversation and are nearly entirely excluded from the higher level STEM education discourse.  For the incoming 2013 freshman class of first time full time freshmen at Georgia Tech, for example, there were only 61 applicants from the entire Atlanta Public School system, nearly 2,500 seniors. Of those 61 applicants, 26 were admitted and 15 have enrolled.  

 Despite APS being 79 percent black students, only 28 percent, or 17 applicants, of the total applicants from APS were black.  Of those 17 applicants, only 1 black freshman was admitted.

 The vast majority of black students are simply locked out of the most selective ranks of STEM education.  According to the 2010 Schott report in black males and education,The Urgency of Now,” this problem is compounded by data that suggests that only 42 percent of black male students even graduate from high school in the Atlanta area public school systems.

Despite the array of outreach programs at Georgia Tech, only a single black student in the neighborhood of Georgia Tech was admitted to one of the premiere technical universities in the world.

The tragedy of this painful condition is that it is poised to get worse.  The arrival of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics is going to etch an even bleaker landscape. The higher standards and new aligned assessments will reveal that the chasm between current student performance and competitive competency is even larger than we think for all students. 

 In the first administration of the new Common Core aligned assessment of Georgia students, only 37 percent of all students in the state passed the 2013 Coordinate Algebra examination.  In defense of both teachers and students, first round assessments are always difficult as the system adjusts to new standards. 

The obvious challenge, however, is that the educational system was not able to bring black students up to the existing standards of mathematical fluency. How will it now bring those students to even higher academic standards?

Given that the current mechanism is insufficient to bring black students to minimum levels of proficiency, it is a logical expectation that with higher standards the result will simply be more students failing.  The claim that higher standards are reflective of higher expectations is true.  A standard, however, is an end not a mean.

 If we are not careful, the STEM education conversation can become a mask.  Without intentional focus on and considerable investment in strengthening our means, the end will be an increase in student failure, disenchantment and exclusion. It will help us cover the ugly and far more difficult challenge we now face of equitably nurturing and developing all of our children.

The mask may well, as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, grin and lie and hide the anguish of thousands of black children.

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