The STEM achievement gap between U.S. students and students in other industrialized countries, such as Singapore, is inciting national policy discussions. And now a National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) study offers a new way to see if our public schools are making progress toward a STEM-literate society.
The recent study linked the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scale to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) scale. That means we can get a much more accurate reading of where our students stand internationally.
Although the U.S. has demonstrated over time that some of our students perform well on the international scale, only seven U.S. states conduct TIMSS tests. Until now, there was no way to compare the remaining states to the international community. The new NCES study is the first report that has used linking methods to predict TIMSS scores for the other 43 U.S. states (plus the District of Columbia and Department of Defense schools) that didn’t participate in TIMSS. These analyses allow us to compare U.S. public school students to students in 38 countries, providing a more comprehensive understanding of America’s STEM talent and potential.
The report’s findings are good news, but they come with one big red flag. First, the good news: In 46 states, some students tied or beat the average global score on math. In science, some students in 47 states tied or beat the average global score.
Now the red flag: How many students are truly excelling in these critical fields? And what’s happening with the students in the states that didn’t tie or beat the global average scores?
Consider Massachusetts, our most competitive state on international tests and the top-ranked state in the new NCES report. Only 19 percent of Massachusetts students scored at the advanced level in math; only 24 percent scored at the advanced level in science. These are our best students. In contrast, nearly half of Singapore’s students scored at the advanced level in math, and 40 percent did so in science. In the District of Columbia and Mississippi, two states near the bottom of international rankings, fewer than 5 percent of students scored at the advanced levels in math and science.
So, what can be done?
We already have the $700 million investment in the Educate to Innovate Initiative to accelerate U.S. students’ achievement in math and science. Advances in STEM learning are key in Race to the Top and other competitive grants. And, President Obama has announced an initiative to prepare 10,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade.
But that may not be enough if we are not reaching all students. According to a paper by Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST), 75 percent of the nation’s scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists are male, and 80 percent are white. Yet, the majority of our nation’s youth are young women and members of racial or ethnic minorities. For the United States to excel in math and science, all students must be engaged in STEM, and all STEM talent must be nurtured.
Providing students with high-quality math and science instruction that is authentic, engaging, relevant, and integrated throughout the curriculum, must happen as early as the elementary years. Research shows that early exposure to math and science can help keep students on track through middle and high school.
As other research confirms, exposure to math and science early in high school strongly influences student intent to study a STEM-related field, and racial minorities are more likely than their white and Asian peers to declare a STEM major if they achieve early in math.
By providing a yardstick to compare U.S. students’ progress with that of top students around the world, the new NAEP study should prod us to keep exploring new approaches, grounded in research and best practices. That’s our best defense against the chilly climate too many of our nation’s students encounter on the path to successful academic and postsecondary opportunities in STEM.