Grim outlook for black students in math, science

The national emphasis on improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education is designed to ensure the United States maintains global technological and economic leadership.

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. In the 1950s, 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.

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.

In the 2011 Georgia End of Course Test for Mathematics, 54 percent of the nearly 52,000 black students who took the exam failed. The failure rate got worse when considering Mathematics II. 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: metro Atlanta 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 concentration of educated adults, the academic performance for black students in the Atlanta Public Schools is grim, and the racial achievement gap is thriving.

For the 2013 Georgia Tech freshman class of first-time, full-time students, there were only 61 applicants out of Atlanta’s nearly 2,500 seniors. Of those 61 applicants, 26 were admitted, and 15 were enrolled. Despite APS being 79 percent black students, only 28 percent, or 17 applicants, of the total applicants were black. Of those 17, only one black freshman was admitted.

The vast majority of black students are simply locked out of the most selective ranks of STEM education. Despite the array of outreach programs at Georgia Tech, only a single black student in Tech’s neighborhood 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. 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 exam. (In defense of 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?

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.

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Dr. Kamau Bobb is a research scientist at the Center for Education Integrating Science Mathematics and Computing at Georgia Tech.