CRDC brief: Few students with disabilities enroll in advanced STEM courses

The 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection released last month includes information on student enrollment in STEM courses.

The issue brief STEM Course Taking disaggregates the students enrolled in middle and high school STEM courses by race, sex, English learner status, and IDEA status.

While overall high school enrollment for students served under the IDEA was 12 percent, according to the report the enrollment of students with disabilities in high school STEM courses ranged between 2 and 13 percent. The highest percentages were in Algebra 1 and Biology and the lowest were in Calculus and advanced mathematics.

“This was pretty consistent with what I expected to see,” said Matthew Marino, an associate professor of exceptional education at the University of Central Florida whose research focuses on students with disabilities in STEM.

Put in context with the percentage of high school students served under the IDEA who spend the majority (80 percent or more) of their school day in regular education classes — 7.5 percent, “I’d expect to see STEM courses with about 7.5 percent students with disabilities,” Marino said. The numbers will be higher for courses that states require for a standard diploma, such as Algebra 1 and Biology, and lower as the courses become more advanced, he said.

Indeed, the majority of the STEM courses reported in the CRDC showed enrollment of students with disabilities between 4 and 9 percent. “Where it’s lower than 7.5 percent, you have to ask why,” Marino said.

One reason is lower expectations, Marino said. “In middle school, transition plans are established, and decisions about high school courses are made,” he said. “Unfortunately, students with disabilities aren’t being pushed to STEM because the expectations are not there.”

3 ways to improve enrollment for students with disabilities

Marino shared three steps district leaders can take to improve the STEM enrollment of student with disabilities:

1. Establish high expectations for all students. Being in a more restrictive setting can limit a student’s ability to take higher-level courses. “I’d want to reaffirm my decision to put students in a certain setting first, then look at the student’s coursework and transition plan goals,” Marino said.

Make sure students are taking courses that are consistent with their intended career. “They need an explicit plan to get them to that career, and they need to understand what the college or technical requirements are going to be prior to starting high school,” he said.

2. Invite more STEM teachers to IEP meetings. Particularly when middle school students are interested in STEM careers, make sure their IEP teams include STEM teachers, Marino said. “Having a dynamic team with members who have that content knowledge can be very helpful,” he said.

These content experts can explain the high school courses the student will need to take to pursue a career in a STEM field as well as work with the other team members to identify helpful strategies and assistive technologies that work for the student, Marino said. “We found that assistive technology, such as text-to-speech where students can listen to expository texts in a science book, are very helpful,” he said.

3. Use peer, career mentors. Connect students with peer mentors, Marino said. “As part of a study of 75,000 college students at UCF in foundation-level STEM courses, we found that having a peer or career mentor was very helpful for college students with disabilities,” he said. In a middle school setting, this could look like a high school student in STEM courses meeting with a middle school student who is interested in those courses once a week for tutoring and to review study strategies they’re finding helpful, he said. Also, try to connect students with career mentors through summer internship opportunities with professionals in the STEM fields, he said.

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504 and education technology as it relates to special education for LRP Publications.

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