CEOs Highlight STEM Learning ‘Vital Signs’ in States

By Erik W. Robelen — April 21, 2011 4 min read
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A coalition of more than 110 corporate CEOs today unveiled a set of state-by-state reports on STEM learning that it says are aimed at “correcting the record” in places where state data may give an inaccurate picture of student achievement, as well as “celebrating” the good news and pointing to the challenges ahead.

“Too many states are lulling parents and their children into a false sense of security at a time when all students need a much stronger foundation in math and science to thrive in a global economy,” the nonprofit Change the Equation declared in releasing the reports, which it has dubbed STEM Vital Signs.

The group sent letters to all the nation’s governors this week calling for higher proficiency standards in science and mathematics so that American students will be better prepared to compete globally. (For background on Change the Equation, check out this blog post from last September, when the group launched.)

The concerns expressed about state standards are based on comparing proficiency rates in mathematics as reported by individual states in 2009 with results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. The group notes that while states report that the majority of their students are meeting state academic standards, results from NAEP show that only 38 percent of 4th graders and 33 percent of 8th graders scored proficient or advanced in math.

This analysis, however, as with the other information in the Vital Signs, is not new. The proficiency data draws from both NAEP and a 2010 analysis published in the journal Education Next.

It’s also worth noting that some experts caution against drawing strong conclusions based on this type of comparison. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me that the math proficiency cut point on NAEP is widely seen as having been set especially high.

“Many people question the proficient cut point in NAEP,” he said. “I question [it]. I think it’s too severe.”

Loveless also cautions that the design of the NAEP assessment is very different from many state tests, further complicating comparisons.

Claus Von Zastrow, the chief operating officer for Change the Equation, said that while “there’s no perfect measure” of student proficiency, he suggests that “when you get some of the enormous gaps you get here, then that’s telling.”

For example, the Vital Signs report for Tennessee shows that 90 percent of 4th graders were rated proficient on that state’s assessment in 2009, compared with just 28 percent on NAEP. In North Carolina, 82 percent were proficient on the state math test, compared with 43 percent on NAEP. That said, in Massachusetts, the data were flipped, with fewer 4th graders (48 percent) proficient on the state math test than on NAEP (57 percent).

The STEM Vital Signs reports for each state, plus the District of Columbia, provide a variety of other information to “dig deeper into the nation’s education challenges,” the group says. “We aim to arm both business leaders and state leaders with the information they need to make the case for truly high expectations for our nation’s students.”

The reports, for example, provide additional data on how students in individual states performed on NAEP in math and science, highlights achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups, and supplies the percentage of 9th graders who graduate from high school in four years. The reports also indicate whether individual states have adopted the Common Core standards in math.

Further, the reports draw on NAEP survey data indicating what math and science students say about math and science instruction in their schools.

For example, in North Carolina, almost half of students said they “never or hardly ever” write reports on science projects, and 39 percent said they “never or hardly ever” design a science experiment.

Von Zastrow said the Vital Signs are intended “to bring into one place some critical information about the condition of math and science in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” He cautioned that this is only the “first round,” and that it all drew on existing data and analysis. But more is still to come.

“We are planning a second round of STEM Vital Signs that will be much more detailed, and will be done by the American Institutes for Research,” he said. “We aim for them to be the most complete and detailed and richest information that is available.”


Speaking of the business community and STEM education, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week issued a report saying business leaders are “positioned to play a vital role” in this arena.

“Business leaders are equipped to provide the kind of straight-talking leadership and relevant experience that transformative STEM reform requires,” says the report from the chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce. “With their enormous credibility, political heft, and ultimate role as the employer of America’s STEM talent, business leaders are perhaps the only major stakeholder that has the freedom, reason, and muscle to challenge a comfortable status quo that universities, school boards, educators, unions, and parents have been reluctant to change.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.