Engineering Making Headway in Schools, Analysis Shows

By Liana Loewus — March 28, 2017 3 min read
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Engineering is getting more attention in classrooms, especially in those states that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, according to an analysis of national test data.

The NGSS, which were finalized in April 2013, emphasize engineering and design in ways that many previous state standards did not.

Change the Equation, a nonprofit group that mobilizes the business community to improve STEM learning, looked at data from surveys administered to 4th and 8th grade teachers and students as part of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The group wrote about the results in two blog posts.

“For 8th grade, pretty much across the board, the early adopters in NGSS saw swift increases in the amount of time teachers were reporting spending on engineering on a couple different measures,” Claus Von Zastrow, the chief operating officer and director of research for Change the Equation, said in an interview.

Now, nearly 20 states have adopted the Next Generation standards, but the analysis counts “early adopters” as those that adopted before 2014 (though there weren’t NAEP data for the District of Columbia, Kansas, and Vermont).

For example, 8th graders in early-adoption states were much more likely than their peers in other states to say their science teachers spend “some” or “a lot of” class time on engineering and technology.

And they were slightly more likely to have science teachers who say that they discuss “the kinds of problems engineers can solve” at least once a month.

“It’s interesting. ... The patterns I think are really distinct, and it’s enough to tell us that something’s afoot in these states,” said Von Zastrow. “It’s enough to tell us the NGSS is likely having an impact.”

Notably, early adopters of the Next Generation standards started behind other states on both of these measures, and made more progress than between 2011 and 2015. “I honestly don’t know whether that was something that prompted these states” to adopt the new standards, said Von Zastrow.

California and Washington See Less Growth

The data for 4th grade show that, across the country, students are generally tackling engineering challenges more often than they did in 2009 (when the survey question was last asked).

Most of the NGSS early adopters are outpacing the national average when it comes to talking about engineering in classrooms. But there are two exceptions: California and Washington.

In those states, 4th graders seem a bit more likely to be talking about engineering than they were previously—but not much. Just 8 percent of California 4th graders and 9 percent of Washington 4th graders had science teachers who said that they talk about the kinds of problems engineers solve at least weekly. Across the United States, the percentage was 14.

A closer look shows that students in those states are spending less time on science overall than students in the other NGSS early-adopter states.

“If elementary schools aren’t spending a lot of time on science, they’re not going to spend a lot of time on engineering,” said Van Zastrow, “and one could argue the NGSS is not going to have the kind of impact that one would hope.”

There are, of course, caveats for this kind of analysis. First, even the states that adopted the NGSS on the early end may not have implemented it in all classrooms by the time the NAEP test was given in 2015, so it’s not completely clear gains in engineering are a result of the standards. (The gains could also have occurred before 2013, when the standards were finalized.) Also, the surveys rely on what teachers and students are reporting—not on an objective measure of what’s being taught.

Also, as Von Zastrow notes, “saying you’re spending more time on something doesn’t mean it’s happening in any particularly effective way. ... The data don’t tell us that.”

Change the Equation has periodically done analyses of NAEP data to see national trends on STEM teaching, such as this analysis finding that more than half of seniors attend high schools that don’t offer computer science.

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