Information Brief 2002-2

Mathematics and Science Achievement and Course-Taking for College-Bound High School Students

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act became law in 1994, motivated by earlier concerns about the condition of education in the United States. Goals 2000 was intended to help state and local educational agencies identify and strengthen areas of weakness within their systems. Eight broad goals were presented in the Act. Goal 5 stated that by the year 2000, “U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement. ”This goal implies that mathematics and science education and achievement of U.S. students needed improvement. Partial justification for this goal came from standardized test results, which suggested that U.S. student achievement in mathematics and science had been on the increase since 1980, but nearly leveled off by the mid-1990’s (see NAEP 1999: Trends in Academic Progress).

If student achievement in mathematics and science does not noticeably improve, today’s high school students may enter college or the workforce with limited mathematics- or science-related skills. As a result, their chances of success in college coursework or in the world of work, as well as their contributions to the U.S. labor market, might also be limited.

ACT research suggests that educational achievement, as measured by the ACT Assessment, is related to high school course work, grades, and high school attended. In this brief, we discuss achievement in mathematics and science of high school students who indicated, when taking the ACT Assessment, that they were “Fairly Sure” or “Very Sure” that they would pursue either a mathematics/science-related or non-mathematics/science-related major in college (referred to as intended mathematics/science majors and intended non-mathematics/science majors, respectively). Intended mathematics/science majors could be considered potential high achievers in mathematics and science. One might expect them to have prepared for college mathematics and science study by taking a rigorous high school curriculum. However, are these students high achievers? Are they actually taking a rigorous high school curriculum to enhance the skills they need for college success and workplace performance?

Intended mathematics/science and intended non-mathematics/science majors were identified according to whether they have taken or plan to take a college-preparatory core curriculum before they graduate from high school. ACT defines the college-preparatory core curriculum as at least four years of English and at least three years each of mathematics, social studies, and natural sciences. Core mathematics and science courses are beyond introductory level. For example, a typical minimal core mathematics course sequence might include Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry.A typical minimal core science course sequence might include General Science, Biology, and Chemistry.

Are Intended Mathematics/Science Majors Better Prepared?

Table 1 contains information based on ACT Mathematics and Science Reasoning scores for year 2000 public high school graduates who took the ACT Assessment. A total of 133,035 intended mathematics/science majors and 546,056 intended non-mathematics/science majors were studied.

Table 1
ACT Mathematics and Science Reasoning Performance by Curriculum and Major Intent
Intended major Curriculum Pct. taking1 ACT Mathematics ACT Science Reasoning
Mean Pct. at or above 27 Mean Pct. at or above 25
Mathematics/
science related
(N=133,035)
Core 69% 23.6 32 23.1 47
Non-Core 30% 20.5 16 20.8 28
Non-mathematics/
science related
(N=546,056)
Core 61% 21.0 14 21.3 29
Non-Core 39% 18.4 5 19.3 15

1Column totals may not add up to 100% due to missing core indicators.

The results in Table 1 point out an alarming finding: 30% of the intended mathematics/science majors did not take a core curriculum. This finding shows that, on average, a large percentage of graduates intending to major in mathematics- or science-related fields may be underprepared for success in college-level coursework as a result of not taking a college-preparatory core curriculum.

Table 1 also shows that, for intended mathematics/science majors, core-takers had higher average Mathematics and Science Reasoning scores than non-core takers. In fact, core takers outperformed non-core takers by 3.1 ACT Mathematics and 2.3 ACT Science Reasoning score points. Core takers outperformed non-core takers in Mathematics and Science Reasoning, regardless of major field of interest.

Moreover, ACT Mathematics and Science Reasoning scores were higher for intended mathematics/science majors than for intended non-mathematics/science majors.For instance, for students taking core, average ACT Science Reasoning scores for intended mathematics/science majors were 1.8 points higher than those of intended non-mathematics/science majors. For more details, see ACT Research Report 2001-031.

Are High School Students Taking The Courses They Need For Success in College?

Data from the ACT Course Placement Service has shown that students with an ACT Mathematics score of 27 typically have a 50/50 chance of getting at least a B in college-level calculus. Corresponding information for chemistry has shown that students with a Science Reasoning score of 25 typically have a 50/50 chance of obtaining at least a B in that course. For this study, only 32% of core-taking, intended mathematics/science majors had ACT Mathematics scores at or above 27.In other words, only 32% had at least a 50/50 chance of obtaining a B or higher in college calculus.The percentages for non-core-taking, intended mathematics/science majors were considerably lower, with only 16% having at least a 50/50 chance of getting a B or higher in college calculus! Science Reasoning results followed a similar pattern: 47% of core taking, intended mathematics/science majors had at least a 50/50 chance of getting a B or higher in college chemistry, compared to only 28% for non-core taking, intended mathematics/science majors.

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The differences in percentages of students with at least a 50/50 chance of obtaining a B or higher between core and non-core students, grouped by intended mathematics or science majors or non-majors, is disturbing. There are many students, including intended mathematics/science majors, who do not take a core curriculum as a way to prepare for college.As a result, they limit their chances of success in college mathematics and science courses.

By encouraging students to take a core curriculum in high school, high school faculty, staff, and administrators would be increasing their students’ achievement in mathematics and science. Attention needs to be paid both to identifying non-core takers and to motivating them to lay a foundation for future successes by taking a core curriculum.


1Harmston, M. T., & Pliska, A. M. (2001). Trends in ACT Mathematics and Science Reasoning achievement, curricular choice, and intent for college major: 1995-2000. (ACT Research Report Series, No. 2001-03).Iowa City, IA: ACT.