Colorado educators Elaine Menardi and Jess Buller would seem an unlikely pair to be writing legislation. But neither felt that their students, then middle schoolers, were on track for meeting state benchmarks for workforce readiness in technology and computing.
So, while participating in a fellowship together, the two cooked up a solution: a STEM diploma endorsement awarded to high school students with a track record of strong achievement in those subjects. In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the fruit of their labor into law.
“It was so valuable for educators to be in the thick of it all, because if a lawmaker had come up with the idea, they might have put in criteria that wouldn’t have been as rigorous,” Menardi said, noting the high grade point average students must maintain to earn the seal.
Colorado’s new law is unusual in the degree of participation educators had in shaping it, but it is not unique. Within the last school year, at least two other states created a diploma endorsement in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
STEM endorsements are still so new overall that there are few insights on how they will play out on the ground for students—and whether the new credentials will come to signify anything of value to employers or colleges.
For now, advocates in the STEM fields generally are of two minds on the development of these new credentials. Many are supportive of incentives to enrich what’s often seen as high schoolers’ anemic diet of math and science. But advocates also say schools will face challenges in ensuring that all students will have the opportunity to earn them.
“The reality is there are a lot of schools where there are no STEM Advanced Placement classes, and those schools tend to serve low-income students and students of color,” said Claus von Zastrow, the research director of Change the Equation, a group representing businesses that are pushing for stronger STEM opportunities in schools. “You have to create the pathways for those kids.”
A Gap in Readiness?
In addition to Colorado, Nevada’s legislature in 2017 passed legislation creating “STEM seals” for diplomas, while Ohio’s state board of education adopted rules late last year for a STEM diploma endorsement. And two populous states, California and Michigan, flirted with the idea of awarding special recognition to graduates in STEM, in 2015 and 2016, respectively, but did not enact legislation. Hawaii, New York, and Texas also offer some kind of STEM credential for high school students.
The endorsements differ from the raft of advanced diplomas and career and technical badges that several states already offer. Students who earn them must take additional STEM coursework and demonstrate advanced science and math ability via high scores on tests, or through a capstone project in which they apply their knowledge.
Just what lies behind states’ appetite for the seals is harder to pinpoint. Most of the states embracing STEM seals also offer extra credentials in other fields.
In an increasingly credential-dependent world, said Nicole Smith, a chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, it may be that credentials are simply easier for employers to grasp than course titles that can hide a range of educational rigor.
But it’s also likely that efforts to close the so-called gap between the skills employers want and those held by job-seekers are starting to appear in the high school pipeline.
“You want to make sure that they [students] have access to the types of gateway courses that will help them prepare for these college credits,” Smith said.
That was what local groups were telling Jess Buller, too. “What we were just hearing from higher education and even more importantly, from current and future employers, was that students were entering the field not being fully prepared,” said Buller, a principal in Kremmling, Colo.
It’s an idea that has gained increasing currency recently. In fact, aside from school choice, the skills gaps is one of the few education issues that President Donald Trump has highlighted.
Whether or not a gap truly exists—and whether the mismatch is among all STEM fields or only some of them—remains a question of much debate among researchers. But even those who are skeptical, such as demographer Michael Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School’s labor and worklife program, generally say they see efforts to develop a more science-and math-proficient high school population as worth pursuing.
“To the extent that this raises the perceived value psychologically or in terms of how students view the values of high school education, I think it can only be to the good,” he said. “If it’s being sold as, ‘If you do this, you’ll have a successful career,’ it’s probably overpromising.”
The push for more STEM learning in high schools hasn’t been universally embraced by parents, though.
In 2015, parents attacked STEM endorsement legislation in Michigan using anti-standardization rhetoric similar to that used by critics of common reading and math standards. They argued that the new policy would reduce local control over graduation requirements and would lead to different tracks for students. (The Michigan bill did not pass, but was reintroduced this year.)
Questions of Equity
But local concerns didn’t derail Colorado’s bill, despite that state’s strong history of local control. Its new law gives districts much freedom as to the types of classes they could count toward the credential.
Menardi believes the coursework—four STEM courses in sequence, in addition to the district’s standard graduation requirements—should mean nothing lower than geometry, and generally should consist of each district’s highest-level STEM offerings.
“We really want that endorsement to be a guarantee for colleges that this student isn’t going to need remediation, and a demonstration to employers that these kids know their stuff, and they’re going to be good employees,” she said.
Those are good goals, say groups like Achieve, a nonprofit that has pushed for all high schoolers to take a rigorous high school curriculum, including at least three credits of math. But they are harder to oversee in local-control arrangements.
“We believe that states offering the endorsement at the state level encourages more even access across districts, whereas states that leave it up to the district, it really is going to vary quite significantly,” said Jennifer Sattem, a senior fellow of policy and practice at Achieve.
She and others also point out disturbing inequities in access to the most rigorous math and science classes. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only a third of high schools with a high proportion of black or Latino students offer a Calculus class, compared to more than half of schools with a less-diverse enrollment, for example.
Tracking diploma outcomes by population continues to be a challenge, especially as the number of graduation options multiplies. New York state has offered science and math diploma endorsements for several years, but by press time could not produce numbers on how many graduates now hold diplomas with those honors.
Colorado officials say they’re aware of the challenges. By 2021, districts will have to report how they’re meeting the state’s graduation guidelines, including options for students to demonstrate that they’re ready for college and careers, said Misti Ruthven, the state’s executive director of student pathways.
Making It Count
Colorado and Ohio also expect students to apply their skills in relevant capstone demonstrations that, presumably, would be partially overseen by local employers.
“That’s the tough part; as these things become more popular, they quickly strain the ability of employers to meet [student] demand,” said Change the Equation’s von Zastrow. “They’re not used to this. It’s not something they’ve built into their workflow in any meaningful way.”
And whether STEM seals will gain widespread currency among employers remains to be seen. What von Zastrow doesn’t want is for the endorsements to wind up as diploma “flair”—attractive, but ultimately useless because they don’t signify anything to colleges or to employers.
Ohio is already reaching out to higher education, said Tess Elshoff, the president of the state’s board of education, “in the hopes that possibly down the road once it’s implemented, colleges will recognize that students have emphasis in this area, and it will open up doors in certain departments and majors,” she said.
And Colorado has help in the form of an active business community said Kelly Caufield, the director of policy and advocacy for Colorado Succeeds, a group of businesses that are pushing for better alignment between school and work.
“Something that’s been so hard the last 30 years is figuring out how business can engage strategically with K-12 and higher ed.,” she said. “This makes sure business is at the table. Employers need to be part of the conversation of what will constitute a STEM diploma.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as States Embrace STEM Endorsements for High School Diplomas