You need chemistry to become a registered nurse or an emergency medical technician. You need physics to become an architect.
But those occupations could be closed off to students attending a large number of New York City high schools, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. The report found that nearly four in 10 city high schools do not offer algebra II and both physics and chemistry.
The numbers paint a grim picture of the instruction many students are receiving in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The numbers look especially bleak for black and Hispanic students, who are underrepresented at the schools where most advanced diplomas are earned.
New York state is in the process of adopting Common Core learning standards that focus on skills students need for college-level courses or to enter higher-paying professions after high school. But as students struggle to adjust to a new Common Core-aligned algebra course, the report highlights that advanced courses remain out of reach for many students.
The rapid proliferation of small high schools in the last decade, which often offer a more limited range of academic classes than larger schools with more scheduling flexibility, are one cause, according to Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools and one of the report’s authors. Another is that too many students arrive in high school ill-prepared to tackle those courses.
“Huge numbers of kids arrive in ninth grade not able to do fractions,” a skill students should begin learning in elementary school, Hemphill said. “So they just spend years and years and years getting caught up, and there’s just not enough kids who get that far.”
The city’s Department of Education is taking steps to improve its training and instruction in those subjects. In recent months, it has launched a free summer program to 1,200 students finishing second, seventh, and ninth grades focused on science, technology, engineering and math, provided more than 400 teachers with training in the STEM subjects, and released new science curriculum guidelines for elementary schools. In 2013, the city also announced an expansion of Advanced Placement courses in high-need schools.
“Our goal is to provide every New York City student with the math and science skills they need to succeed in college and meaningful careers, and we have taken concrete steps to improve offerings and raise achievement,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.
But the report reflects a persistent contradiction: After a decade of aggressive changes to city schools, more students than ever are earning a high school diploma, and fewer than ever are dropping out. The needle has barely moved, though, based on one measure of students’ preparedness for college-level coursework — the proportion of students earning an advanced diploma. (To receive an advanced diploma, students must pass two additional math exams and one additional science exam, among other requirements.)
There are also disparities in access to high-level courses in high school. The city’s high school choice system means that a student’s future access to advanced course offerings in math and science is largely determined by seventh grade, since many high schools admit students based on their grades and state test scores from that year.
Nearly half of all students who received an advanced diploma attended just 25 of the city’s more than 600 high schools in 2013-14. At 100 other high schools, no students received an advanced Regents diploma, compared to 18 percent of students citywide.
White and Asian students, though they make up less than one quarter of the city’s high school student population, constitute 70 percent of students at high schools with that award the most advanced diplomas. Meanwhile, at 100 schools where none of those diplomas were awarded, 92 percent of students were black or Hispanic.
The report offers some recommendations. High schools sharing space inside larger buildings should make greater effort to combine resources to offer advanced classes for top students. And recognizing that some students may never make it beyond introductory algebra, schools should offer “conceptual” courses in chemistry and physics. At Quest to Learn in Manhattan, a middle and high school, for example, teachers have developed a chemistry class for tenth graders that provides them with an introduction to the subject and, perhaps, a primer to take the Regents-level course in the following year.
A list of city high schools and their advanced math and science offerings in the 2013-14 school year can be found here.