September 2010

Racial Demographics and Education Trends


The National Center for Educational Statistics recently published a report titled “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups,” which is a must read for anyone interested in the state of education.  It highlights some positive trends and some challenges that still exist, and looks at the demographic changes in the U.S. (Titled "The Reality of Back to School: Back to What?" in print version.)


Minority-AffairsIt’s “back to school” time. This can be heard in many settings all over the country at this time of the year, and it means different things to different people. A kindergartener preparing for his or her first day of school and a ninth grader getting ready for the first day of high school may both have images of new beginnings. Whereas a college senior, preparing for post-baccalaureate studies, may have images of an end.

For some people, “back to school” conjures up positive images like a new classroom, new classmates, new teachers and new school supplies. And, while some people find this time of the year exciting, only a few of them are looking forward to science and math. Unfortunately, these subjects continue to lag behind other subjects that excite students. In fact, many students approach learning science and math like they do taking medicine; they “swallow while holding their nose.” 

We all understand that in order to succeed in this changing global economy, students have to be well trained in science and math.  So, perhaps “back to school” should be a time for scientists to think about how to keep the younger generation interested and engaged in these subjects.  But, in order to do that, we must reflect on successes and failures and think about the needs of the next generation as they relate to education.

The National Center for Educational Statistics recently published a report titled “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups” (1). The 181-page congressionally mandated document is a must-read for anyone interested in the state of education. It highlights some positive trends and some challenges that still exist, and looks at the demographic changes in the U.S. So, what can those of us in higher education learn from this report?

Racial Demographics

The NCES study found that the racial demographics of the country have significantly changed in the past 20 years, becoming more diverse. The report states that from 1980 to 2008, we have seen a shift in the percentage of our racial composition, with the Hispanic population expanding the fastest, experiencing an increase from 6.4 percent of the population in 1980 to 15.4 percent in 2008. The Caucasian population has seen a decline from 80 percent to 66 percent, while the Black population remains at 12 percent. The data also suggest that the trend will continue in the future. If this is true, and nonwhite ethnic groups will comprise the majority of our population in the near future, then our educational plans also must change to meet their needs as well.

Achievement Trends

SAT GraphThe NCES report paints a mixed picture for academic achievement trends in the various ethnic groups in the U.S. Although the population that takes college entrance exams has become more diverse, the NCES report found that on both the SAT and ACT exams, American Indian/Alaska, Black and Hispanic students continue to score below their Asian and Caucasian cohorts. In fact, the report suggests that fewer American Indian/Alaska, Black and Hispanic students enroll in high school upper-level math classes.

On a positive note, however, the number of U.S. high school students taking Advanced Placement courses doubled in a nine-year period (from 0.7 million students in 1999 to 1.5 million students in 2008), with Black and Hispanic students making up the largest percentage increase.

Still, the study found that, at the national level, American Indian/Alaska, Black and Hispanic students continue to lag behind their Asian and Caucasian cohorts on assessment tools such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. But, these students scored higher than the international average on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

These data suggest that, even though some of our national trends are going in the right direction, we need to work on shortening the achievement gaps between our students.

Making an Impact

So, what can we do? The time may be ripe for this question. The U.S. Department of Education and many state departments of education have begun the process of addressing problems seen in schools with low-achieving students. It is understood widely that science and mathematics education will be important to the future of any nation in the changing global economy. Making sure that our students continue to perform at or above the international average should be our priority. And, with this priority comes the question of how to reach the changing demographics of our students and positively impact their achievements.

It may be a good time for American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members to shift some of our priorities and embrace K-12 education as part of our mission. To jumpstart this effort, the ASBMB Educational and Professional Development and Minority Affairs Committees have planned a special-interest session for the 2011 ASBMB annual meeting, titled “Fostering Interactions between College/University Scientists and High School Students and Teachers” (see page 26 for more information). The session will allow higher education faculty and students to converse with junior high school and high school teachers about student engagement and learning.

After all, K-12 grade students are the scientists of tomorrow. So, let’s get back to school and to education.


1. Aud, S., Fox, M., and KewalRamani, A. (2010).Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.

Regina Stevens-Truss ( is an associate professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College and a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee.

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