American Students Are Taking Harder Math, Science Courses

Percentage of students taking Algebra II has nearly doubled since 1982.


American high school graduates are taking harder math and science classes, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In September, Tom Luce, former CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative, said that the United States needs a "STEM-literate population" that starts by "convinc[ing] the entire country that every child must conquer Algebra II." America has made steady progress toward that goal—in 1982, just 40 percent of high school graduates took Algebra II; in 2009, more than 75 percent did.

Students are taking more and harder math and science courses, as well. The NCES survey looks only at high school graduates; a June report by Education Week put the national high school graduation rate at about 72 percent for the class of 2008.

Since 2000, the percentage of graduates who took calculus increased from 11.6 percent to 15.9 percent, and the percentage of students taking precalculus increased from 27 percent to 35 percent over the same time frame.

In science, just a third of 1982 high school graduates took chemistry. By 2005, that number doubled, and in 2009, more than 70 percent of students took chemistry. Biology is now nearly universally taken by high school grads. Just more than a third of 2009 high school grads took physics, but nearly all students who took physics also took biology and chemistry.

Students are also taking more Advanced Placement examinations. In 1998, the College Board administered just under a million AP exams. In 2005, 2 million exams were given, and in 2010, 3.1 million exams were given.

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