Why do black and Latino boys lag behind in math?

Study shows that patterns of inequality in math at the end of high school cannot be explained away by early performance

Recent studies and public discussions have focused on female achievement in math, and an important new study in the November issue of the American Journal of Education expands the literature to encompass racial disparity. Using new national data from the 1990s, Catherine Riegle-Crumb (University of Texas, Austin) explores how Black and Latino males fare in high school math classes compared to their female counterparts, finding that a tendency to ignore institutional cues can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. While Black males are not encouraged by high grades in freshman math classes, Black females are able to overcome potentially demoralizing scores.

“Compared with white males, African American and Latino males receive lower returns from taking Algebra I during their freshman year, reaching lower levels of the math course sequence when they begin in the same position,” Riegle-Crumb writes. “This pattern is not explained by academic performance, and, furthermore, African-American males receive less benefit from high math grades.”

Riegle-Crumb tracked the progression of more than 8,000 students who enrolled in Algebra 1 as freshmen in high school. Black and Latino groups have lower enrollment rates in math courses than Whites and Asian Americans, but attrition was unexpectedly high even among those who began in comparable positions. Black males seem to have little response to positive feedback or good grades, Riegle-Crumb finds, while Black females seem undeterred by low grades, despite their original disadvantage.

Her findings support the idea that minority students may be less responsive to institutional feedback whether positive or negative. Researchers have argued that minority students may reject the educational system. Black students may feel uncomfortable and unsupported in academically intense environments dominated by white students. Furthermore they may experience a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” – that is, buying into negative academic stereotypes about their race-ethnicity.

“While African American and Latino students of both genders generally start high school in lower math courses compared with their white peers, for minority female students, this appears to be the primary hurdle to reaching comparable levels of math with white female students by the end of high school,” Riegle-Crumb writes.

She continues, “The same cannot be said for African American and Latino males. Like their female peers, they are less likely to begin high school in Algebra I. Yet their disadvantage does not end there but is exacerbated by the lower returns from Algebra I they receive compared with white male peers.”

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Founded as School Review in 1893, the American Journal of Education bridges and integrates the intellectual, methodological, and substantive diversity of educational scholarship, while encouraging a vigorous dialogue between educational scholars and practitioners.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, “The Path through Math: Course Sequences and Academic Performance at the Intersection of Race-Ethnicity and Gender.” American Journal of Education: 113:1.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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