An examination of the characteristics associated with at-risk African-American students experiencing success in high school mathematics

Date of Completion

January 1998


Education, Mathematics|Black Studies|Education, Secondary|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies|Education, Curriculum and Instruction




In general, the underachievement of inner-city African-American high school students in mathematics has been attributed to their "at-risk" background, low teacher expectation, and negative attitude towards mathematics. (Gilbert & Gay, 1985; Stiff & Harvey, 1988). These students are considered at-risk because they come from communities where poverty and unemployment rates are high, drugs and violence are common, and there exists a high probability of dropping out of high school or becoming teenage parents (McLoyd, 1988). Despite the sociocultural, economical, and psychological forces working against them, some at-risk African-American students are experiencing success in high school mathematics.^ This study, conducted in an inner-city high school in the Northeast examined the factors, in-and-out-of school, contributing to the mathematics performance of at-risk African-American high school students (n = 6) who are experiencing success in high school mathematics (i.e., enrolled in a college preparatory mathematics program). This group was compared with a second group of at-risk African-American students (n = 6) from the same school with similar mathematics ability as defined by the TOMA-2 subtests but experiencing less success in high school mathematics (i.e., enrolled in a non-college preparatory mathematics program). In order to examine the factors contributing to the mathematics performance of the students, a case study research methodology was used.^ Data were collected in-and-out of school for three months using interviews, observations, and review of relevant documents. Students, parents, teachers, school personnel, and members of the community who had direct or indirect contact with the students were interviewed. Cross-case analysis and coding were used in analyzing the data.^ The students enrolled in the college preparatory mathematics courses generally believed that success in mathematics was due in part to their interest in the subject, belief in mathematics ability, solving extra mathematics problems, meaningful parental involvement, and motivation to do well in mathematics. In addition, high teacher expectation was identified as an important factor. However, the students enrolled in the non-college preparatory mathematics courses attributed their lack of success in mathematics to negative experiences in mathematics, lack of self-confidence in their mathematics ability, and a home environment conducive for promoting academic success was also lacking. ^