Math and science are for everyone. But unfortunately, many students, and especially Black and Latino students, don’t receive that message or the resources needed to make it a reality. Even early on, many students are told they are not a “math person,” or a “science person;” as such, Black and Latino students have long been denied access to advanced coursework, from elementary through high school. In particular, middle school students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are not being given equitable access to rigorous and empowering courses, including advanced Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses, which set students on college-ready pathways. 

In this brief, we explain the importance of giving middle schoolers access to STEM coursework as part of their social, emotional, and academic development, as well as give five recommendations to state leaders so that they can ensure that all middle school students have access to high-quality, rigorous, relevant math and science courses, and that all schools have equitable policies in place for enrolling more Black and Latino students in advanced coursework.

Why Rigorous STEM in Middle School?

Middle school is a crucial time for students to develop career aspirations, and specifically, middle school students’ identification with STEM-related careers. More access to rigorous and advanced STEM coursework in middle school is essential to equip students with 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking, and technology literacy, while preparing students to be future-ready for jobs that do not even exist yet. Access to advanced coursework and rigorous STEM experiences in middle school can also set students up for success by earning college credits in high school so they can graduate quicker and take on less student debt.

What’s more, Black and Latino students are successful in advanced coursework when they have the opportunity. Ed Trust’s 2022 report, Shut Out: Why Black and Latino Students are Under-Enrolled in AP STEM Courses, found, however, that Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds are denied access to AP STEM opportunities such as AP Biology, AP Physics, and AP Chemistry, despite voicing interest in going to college and pursuing a career in a STEM field. The under-enrollment of Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds in AP STEM courses is linked to resource inequities, educator bias, and racialized tracking, and all these issues begin before high school.

5 State Policy Recommendations

All middle school students should have access to high-quality, rigorous, relevant math and science courses, and all schools should have equitable policies in place for enrolling students in advanced coursework. To get more students in advanced courses, there is not just one barrier but many things at once. To address the entire system of learning and increase access to early opportunities for advanced coursework, states can take the following five actions: 

1. Collect and publicly report on disaggregated data on enrollment and seats available

2. Change identification and enrollment policies to enroll more students of color

  • In 2017, investigative reporting by the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, found that students from low-income backgrounds were being placed in advanced coursework at lower rates than more affluent peers with the same levels of achievement. In response, North Carolina enacted an automatic enrollment policy that guarantees all students who score at the highest level on their end-of-grade math test are placed into an advanced learning opportunity (grades 3-5) or an advanced math course (sixth grade and above) during the following school year. In 2022-23, 92% of North Carolina students in grades 6 and above who scored at the highest level on their end-of-grade math test were placed in an advanced math course
  • The Math Placement Act of 2015 required California school districts with eighth grades and/or ninth grades to develop, establish, and implement fair, objective and transparent mathematics placement policies that consider multiple objective measures as the basis for placement and permit multiple checkpoints to assess placement accuracy and student progress, especially at the start of the academic year
  • Tools like the Equal Opportunity Schools’ Student Insight Card include data about students’ interests, aspirations, and strengths, and schools can factor in this data to cast a wider net and include more students in accelerated coursework

3. Adopt high-quality instructional materials and provide ongoing professional development

4. Require districts and schools to notify families about advanced coursework opportunities

  • In 2021, Connecticut revised its statutes related to advanced coursework to emphasize partnering with families to share information about opportunities for their students. Starting in sixth grade, districts must develop an individualized Student Success Plan (SSP) for each student that provides support in setting goals for academic, career, social, emotional, and physical development that meet rigorous high school and postsecondary expectations. The SSP emphasizes partnership with families and caregivers to ensure that everyone is fully aware of all the benefits of taking advanced coursework. Communication is ongoing and materials are provided in multiple languages with translators available during large, small, and personal information sessions

5. Invest in infrastructure that supports access to and belongingness in advanced courses

  • New York’s equitable course access guidance shares best practices for educators and district leaders, which includes course sequences in earlier grades that are designed to make later advanced coursework possible; school counselors are trained to engage with families and students of all backgrounds; and student-centered supports in advanced coursework such as tutoring and access to technology are available