The findings of this study revealed that socioeconomic disparities in math coursework accumulated across the high school career and not just because of differences in prior math experiences and not just because of differences in school settings (e.g., in the extent of math course offerings) likely conflated with family SES. Even when the low and high SES students in NELS had the same observed skill set in middle school, the latter started off high school at a higher curricular level than the former. Moreover, even when low and high SES students had the same starting point in high school and the same observed skill level, the latter persisted through the math curriculum at higher rates. In other words, low SES students started high school behind and then lost ground. Another way of looking at this phenomenon is that slippage (or decoupling) between skill/status and placement in math and then hemorrhaging (for lack of a better word) from math increased as family SES decreased.
This process of accumulating primary and secondary SES advantages is writ small in the high school math curriculum. First, it is a heavily differentiated set of course offerings that gradually move from required to elective status over time, so that the math trajectory can be viewed as a sequence of decision-making points with potential for self-propagation (; ; ). Second, SES is a powerful predictor of the math classes that students take, especially when math becomes voluntary, and how well they do in these classes (; ; ). Third, math coursework factors into socioeconomic attainment by providing academic credentials that are attractive to four-year colleges, especially selective ones, improving college preparedness, reducing the need for remediation once in college (e.g., in intro-level math classes), and channeling students into specific fields of study in college (e.g., engineering) that feed into high-demand professional fields in the new economy (; ; ).
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