STEM Beats - math

New Vital Signs Data: Access to Challenging STEM Courses

May 4, 2017

Do high schoolers in your state have access to challenging courses in math and science? Change the Equation has just released new data on high school students' access to classes like calculus or physics. We found that few states offer anything approaching universal access to such courses. Millions of students attend high schools that do not even offer those courses. As is so often the case, students of color fare worst.

Nationally, one in four Latino students and nearly one third of black high schoolers attend schools that did not offer calculus in the 2013/14 school year. American Indian students faced even worse odds. Access to physics classes was only moderately better.

Students in schools that do not offer calculus and physics

Many students across the country couldn't take a calculus of physics class even if they wanted to. That's a problem. Watch this space in the coming weeks for more analysis of this problem and how states can tackle it.

In the meantime, head over to our Vital Signs website to see where your state stands.

Tags: math, science, standards

PISA Shows Some Strides in Equity

December 6, 2016

The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t likely include much you haven’t heard before regarding U.S. students. We are falling behind many developed nations in math—23 points lower than the average of all the nations—and just staying afloat with average scores in science and reading.

In contrast, we rank amongst the biggest spenders on education. So, many nations outsmarting us are doing so while spending less. The state of Massachusetts rises above the fray, however, performing very highly in science (only Singapore outperformed the Bay state), highly in reading, and slightly above average in math. Though relevant, our PISA scorecard is not particularly compelling. The most intriguing thing to come out of the 2015 results is our improvement in socio-economic equity--the largest improvement among all of the countries participating in PISA both in 2006 and 2015. Some have criticized PISA in previous years for failing to take into account the large number of students living in poverty in the U.S. and their consistent low performance on standardized testing. But this year's results tell a different story. 

"In 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in Americans’ science scores; in 2015, it explained only 11 percent, which is slightly better than average for the developed world," states the New York Times.

Further PISA analysis shows an increase in performance by our most disadvantaged students. In fact, the 2015 PISA identifies 32 percent of U.S. students as resilient--students that perform among the top quarter of performers in all of the participating countries despite their disadvantaged socio-economic status. This is up 12 percentage points from 2006. At the same time, the data suggests stagnant performance for our most advantaged kids with the boost from the disadvantaged students not significant enough of a bump to raise the overall scores. Parents and educators quick to dismiss PISA results because their individual high-performing students aren't reflected in this data should reconsider. If nothing else is clear, we still have a national problem that will take a unified national effort of educators, parents, advocates, students, and employers targeting student performance at every level.

Photo courtesy of the PISA 2015 Report.

Tags: math, science, education

Dinner with a Side of Data

September 13, 2016

Even in the earliest days of communication people saw pictorials as a useful means of telling stories and relaying important information at a glance.  Here at Change the Equation we’re no different. There’s nothing like a well-planned chart, graph, or infographic to make you hungry and help you plan ahead!

Did you have any idea that 214 days of the year count as some kind of national food or drink day? That means you have an excuse to indulge just about 60 percent of the year! But where do these days come from? Our very own presidents have issued most proclamations for national food day observances since 1995. You have President Reagan to thank for National Catfish Day (June 25th). So next time you’re getting reprimanded by your doctor, nutritionist, or trainer, remember that the data and the Chef in Chief are on your side.

July leads the year as the most edible month with every single day dedicated to at least one food—including two days you don’t have to feel guilty about, National Caesar Salad Day and Fresh Spinach Day.  And in a tie for last (but certainly not least palatable) place are January, February, and May. Our biggest upset though, may be that National Pie Day (January 23rd) doesn’t fall on Pi Day (March 14th). But we suppose, on the bright side, that’s two reasons to eat pie!

Click the picture below to interact with Nathan Yau's "All the National Food Days" data visualization.

Photo courtesy of

Tags: math

New Data: High Schoolers Lack Access to Statistics Courses

August 31, 2016

As recently as 2011, “big data” was not very big news. Fast forward five years, and it consistently ranks among business leaders’ top priorities. Depending on whom you ask, the amount of data on everything from consumer behavior to corporate performance is doubling every one or two years, and analysts predict that shortages of people with the skills to analyze such data may cause high-paying jobs to go begging and companies to lose revenue.

One solution to this challenge? Better access to statistics education in high school.

CTEq’s new analysis of recent federal data on high school statistics courses is hardly reassuring. Most high schoolers attend schools that offer at least some kind of probability and statistics course, but access to gold-standard AP statistics courses is spotty—and it is anything but equitable.  


Few 12th-graders have ever taken a stand-alone statistics course

Unfortunately, the picture looks worse for lower-income students:

Low-income students have less access to statistics courses

Not surprisingly, low-income students are less likely take statistics courses:

Low-income students are less likely to take statistics courses

Geography also plays a big role in who has access to statistics courses, especially AP courses. The AP gap separating town and rural students from suburban students is simply breathtaking:

Statistics courses are less common in rural and small-town schools

This gap in access to AP courses has predictable results:

Rural and small-town students are less likely to take AP statistics

The stakes for improving access to statistics are higher than you might think. Big data can yield big benefits in fields as diverse as public health and weather forecasting, but it can also lead us astray when it loses its moorings in statistical principles.

Take, for example, the case of Google’s Flu Trends, the once-heralded big data initiative that used Google search data to estimate influenza activity in 20 countries. For all its sophisticated algorithms and mountains of data, the enterprise dramatically over-estimated the number of flu cases in the United States, because it rested on a wobbly statistical foundation.  We cannot reap the rewards of big data without a healthy supply of statisticians.

So what is to be done? It may be an overreach to require every high school student to take a statistics course, given the many claims on high-schoolers' schedules. That said, expanding access to AP courses in statistics is one feasible strategy for tackling the problem. The National Math + Science Initiative's College Readiness Program has already expanded access to AP courses, including AP statistics, in states around the country.  

Another solution may already be afoot. States across the country have recently adopted academic standards that include a dose of probability and statistics in middle and high school. The challenge, of course, is to prepare teachers to teach that new content at a time when many lack a strong foundation in the subject

Despite some encouraging signs, the fate of statistics in K-12 remains an open question. The answer lies in broader access to courses and better teacher training.

Tags: math, jobs & workforce

New Study: Lower Teacher Pay Linked to Lower Math Skills

July 27, 2016

If we want better teachers, then we need better incentives to teach. That is one big takeaway from a new study of teachers’ skills in 23 developed nations. Here are the study’s findings in a nutshell:

  1. U.S. teachers test lower in math than teachers in 18 of 23 developed countries. In literacy, U.S. teachers performed better than in math, testing below their peers in 9 out of the 23 countries.
  2. U.S. teachers perform worse in math than their college-educated peers in the United States, and they are in the middle of the pack in literacy.
  3. Teachers’ math skills influence their students’ performance.
  4. U.S. teachers get paid much less than their college-educated peers, even when you take their work experience, skills, and gender into account. In fact, U.S. teachers suffered a larger wage penalty than teachers in all 22 other countries.
  5. Opportunities for women to take jobs outside of teaching significantly affect the skills of teachers—particularly female teachers. In other words, teaching can no longer benefit from skilled women who once had few other professional choices.

At a time when the STEM jobs pay high salaries to those with strong math skills, it can be hard to attract more people with strong math skills to the classroom. That problem, in turn, depresses U.S. students’ performance in math. Higher salaries or other incentives might help right the ship. So can programs like UTeach, which encourages STEM majors to pursue teaching.

That said, we should not turn our backs on the millions of committed teachers we already have. Professional development programs like Intel Math can boost teachers' grasp of math, even if they came to the job with wobbly skills.

(Hat tip: Education Week.)

Tags: math, teachers