Education statistics are on the map. This was the theme of the 2018 NCES STATS-DC Data Conference (July 25-27, 2018), “Visualizing the Future of Education through Data.” The EDGE program is a collaborative product between the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the U.S. Census Bureau. To make data informative and intuitive to parents, teachers, students, and a wider range of audience, the Department of Education has made a great effort to integrate social, economic and geographic data with students’ academic achievement and educational attainment.
Math plays a key role in postsecondary education, but also is subject to strong criticism related to social equity issues. According to the Adelman (1999) study, public schools with predominantly minority demographics have significantly lower math standards, fewer classes, and fewer advancement opportunities compared with schools with predominantly white and higher economic class demographics. Adelman’s data are 20 years old; public schools have made good progress since then to improve all students’ access to STEM courses, although the gap has not yet closed. Our inquiry focuses on how much has changed from what Adelman found almost two decades ago.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest, nationally representative and continuing assessment of what American students know and can do in English, math and other subject areas. Using EDGE, the new tool for data analysis, we explored the math scores of the 8th grade across states from 2003 to 2015. We put three pieces of information on the map: 1) 8th grade math achievements of public school students in each state from 2003 to 2015, 2) Hispanic/Latino and Black/African American students enrollment in public school, and 3) school district percentages above or below the national level for individuals ages 25 and older who are high school graduates or attained higher education.
The data visualization paints a clear picture between northern states and southern states. Public schools in the southeastern states have more Black or African American students; public schools in the southwestern states have more Hispanic and Latino students. For the 8th grade math achievement, compared with the national level, northern states generally perform well, whereas southern states generally perform poorly (except for Texas). In general, in the northern states, more school districts have a higher rate of high-school graduation than the national level; in the southern states, more school districts have a high-school graduation rate lower than the national level.
The data visualized on the maps seem to still support Adelman’s assertion that schools with high percentage of minority students teach less math or require lower math standards, which may explain their lower performance. However, it should be noted that data visualization is simply a way to look at the big picture, a trend or a pattern of a given situation, and not necessarily a means to a conclusion. In the educational context, as in any other purview, the key question then is why. There are many details that we should pay attention to in our search for valid answers and feasible solutions.
EDGE is a powerful data research tool, and as such meant to help, not replace critical thinking and sound analysis.