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School & District Management Opinion

The States Need to Step It Up on STEM

By Rick Hess — September 17, 2014 4 min read
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We talk a lot about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Everyone recognizes that these are critical skills, that the STEM unemployment rate is about half that of other fields, that STEM success is vital to the futures of our kids and our nation, yada yada. But, when it comes to STEM, which states are doing the best, which are doing the worst--and how well are the “best” actually doing? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s new Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on K-12 Educational Effectiveness report has some eye-opening data on this count (full disclosure: I was a partner in this endeavor).

One of the neat, ground-breaking features in Leaders & Laggards is how it gauges state-by-state STEM performance. The premise is that we care about two big things when it comes to STEM: how many kids are being prepared and how well they’re being prepared. This means that states should not strive merely to enroll students in STEM courses, or merely to produce good results with a select handful of students. The goal is quantity and quality.

The report addressed this dual aim by devising a new measure: the share of graduating students in a state who receive at least a 3 on one or more Advanced Placement STEM exams. Put another way, a state’s score is the number of students who pass an AP STEM exam divided by the total number of graduating students in the state. This emphasizes the share of students in AP STEM, but only so long as they are being educated well enough to pass the exam. This was straightforward enough, given the gracious collaboration of the College Board. For full results, check out the report--but here are the highlights.

The top five states on the share of graduating students who passed one or more AP STEM exams were Massachusetts (16.0%), Maryland (15.9%), Connecticut (15.4%), Virginia (13.9%), New York (13.7%), and New Jersey (13.1%). Notice that these results are hardly worth crowing about. In our best-performing states, not even one student in six graduated from high school having passed an AP STEM exam.

But the worst-performing states did their level best to make those top five look sensational. The bottom five performers were North Dakota and Nebraska (tied at 4.0%), West Virginia (3.6%), New Mexico (3.5%), Louisiana (1.9%), and Mississippi, bringing up the rear at 1.2%.

More broadly, just 17 states had at least 10% of graduates passing at least one AP STEM exam, while eleven states had a rate of less than 5%. The median performance was posted by Texas, at 7.5%.

Let’s go deeper on one area of pressing import: how states are faring when it comes to the share of high school graduates receiving a 3 or higher on the AP computer science exam. The top five performers are pretty familiar from above: Maryland (1.4%), Virginia (1.1%), New Jersey (0.9%), Massachusetts (0.7%), and Texas (0.70%). But the storyline here is less the performance of these five than the fact that just two states had more than 1% of high school graduates getting a 3 or higher in the AP computer science exam! Given that reality, it’s no surprise that the performance of the bottom five was dismal. The bottom five were Montana (0.1%), Kansas (0.1%), North Dakota (0.04%), Louisiana (0.04%), and Wyoming (0.00%). (And this excludes Mississippi, for which data aren’t available because only one student even took the exam--meaning the results can’t be released.) In 11 states, no African American student sat for the 2013 computer science exam. In eight states, no Latino student did.

These results are so disconcerting because the computer science field is lucrative and growing (in addition to being critical for national security, competitiveness, entrepreneurial energy, and offering a lot of rewarding and flexible jobs). The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 30% increase in demand for software developers over the next half-dozen years, a job for which average annual pay was over $90,000 in 2010. People are going to fill those jobs--but we’re not doing much to make sure they’ll be American youth. That means firms will either find ways to import those who can do the work or export those jobs to places where skilled employees are plentiful. Either scenario is a loss for our kids and our nation.

What can states do about all this? As always, the first step is to acknowledge and confront the problem. Then states should get to work with school systems and educators. They should boost their efforts to expand AP STEM offerings, using virtual delivery when helpful and appropriate. They should aggressively step up efforts to enroll more students in AP STEM classes who are able and willing to do the work. They should explore ways to improve STEM instruction, figure out how to recruit and compensate great STEM teachers, and provide better support for those teaching STEM in grades K through 12. And they should hold themselves accountable for the progress they make.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.