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Despite Equal Interest in STEM, Girls Trail Boys in Readiness

By Brenda Iasevoli — March 08, 2018 3 min read
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Girls and boys are equally interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM, for short). Yet when it comes to preparedness for college courses in these subjects, girls continue to lag behind boys, according to a report released today by ACT. The nonprofit is known for tests designed to assess high school students’ college readiness.

To determine readiness, students were assigned a STEM score based on combined results from their ACT math and science tests. ACT test scores range from 1 to 36. A student earning at least the benchmark score of 26 has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in first-year college STEM courses, and a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher, according to the report. The student is also more likely to stick it out with a STEM major and earn a bachelor’s degree.

The report revealed that just 18 percent of females, compared to 24 percent of males, earned a score of 26.

The disparity is even larger among students with an interest in STEM: 22 percent of females earned a score of 26 compared to 31 percent of males. Even more surprising, females interested in STEM were less likely than all males (including those with or without an interest in STEM) to meet or surpass that benchmark score (22 percent versus 24 percent). Meanwhile, the overall level of interest in STEM between females and males is nearly equal at 47 percent versus 50 percent, respectively.

Interest in STEM was measured based on students’ responses when registering for an ACT test. For instance, students are asked to choose a college major and an occupation they plan to pursue after high school. They also complete an interest inventory in which they must choose a preferred work-related activity (such as building a picture frame, conducting a meeting, or helping settle an argument).

The findings are based on the registration data and ACT scores of more than 2 million students who took the test in 2017.

While there are plenty of promising efforts to generate interest in STEM, including a Girl Scout program noted in the report that puts girls in contact with STEM professionals and college students, much more needs to be done, according to ACT’s Chief Commercial Officer, Suzana Delanghe. “Encouraging young women to consider pursuing technically challenging careers must be on the top of educators’ ‘to do’ lists,” she said in a statement.

The call to level the playing field is especially important considering the growth of STEM careers in the United States—and the continuing need for people to fill them. Jobs in the STEM field grew by 10.5 percent from May 2009 to 2015—more than twice the growth rate of non-STEM jobs. This trend is expected to continue, according to the report.

“We must take action if our nation is to remain competitive in the global economy,” said Gretchen Guffy, ACT director of policy. “The recommendations shared in this report will help drive greater access and opportunity for all students and better ensure the U.S. can keep pace with the increasingly STEM-reliant economy’s workforce needs.”

Here are ACT’s suggestions for improving STEM readiness by 2022:

Ensure that state graduation requirements factor in high-quality science and math courses for all students. ACT would like to double the number of states requiring all high school students to take three math courses like Algebra I & II and geometry, as well as three science courses like biology, chemistry, and physics. The chart below shows the difference an extra year (or more) of math or science can make in terms of readiness for college-level courses.

Pay teachers more. The United States ranks 22nd out of 27 countries in average earnings for teachers, according to the report. ACT suggests increasing teacher starting salaries by 10 percent annually, and providing bonuses to attract math, science, and engineering majors.

Create a loan forgiveness program for STEM teachers. ACT suggests that the government create and fund a federally matched loan-forgiveness program to prepare more STEM teachers by the end of 2022.

Provide dual enrollment courses. Schools can step up entry into STEM fields through partnerships with local community colleges, universities, and businesses that can provide STEM instruction and real-world work experiences.

Images: ACT “STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do

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