Mathematics

Students’ Data Literacy Is Slipping, Even as Jobs Demand the Skill

By Sarah Schwartz — February 14, 2023 2 min read
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Students’ data analysis skills have dropped, and teachers say they’re putting less emphasis on the subject, a new analysis finds—even as workforce demand for data-literate employees continues to rise.

The report, from the advocacy coalition Data Science 4 Everyone based at the University of Chicago, analyzed results from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Zarek Drozda, the coalition’s director and report’s author, examined student scores in data analysis, statistics, and probability—a subset of NAEP’s math test.

Questions in this content area assess students’ ability to use and represent data. In 4th grade, for example, students are asked to use statistical measures like median, range, and mode. Eighth graders should be able to identify the differences between a random sampling of data and non-random sampling.

Scores in this subset of the NAEP math test dropped 10 scale score points for 8th graders and four points for 4th graders. The declines were larger for students from low-income families.

The nosedive in student performance isn’t unique to data skills. The 2022 NAEP scores, the first since the beginning of the pandemic, demonstrated the wide-ranging and devastating effects of school disruptions on student achievement. Scores dropped in math overall, after years of holding steady.

But data analysis scores were already trending downward before COVID hit, Drozda said.

Student achievement in these areas is falling even as job opportunities in these areas continue to grow, the report argues.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the job outlook for data scientists and computer and information research scientists will grow between 21-36 percent from 2021 through 2031—much faster than the national average for all positions.

Classroom focus on data science falls

In questionnaires given to teachers as part of the NAEP, most educators said that they reported a “moderate” or “heavy” emphasis on data science.

But what exactly that means can vary. There’s no guarantee that students are doing the kinds of assignments that would prepare them for work they might want to do in college or in their careers—like analyzing large data sets, for example, said Drozda.

Teachers also seemed to put less empahsis on data science in their classroom in the last few years. Responses from the NAEP questionnaires showed a decrease in the percentage of teachers who reported a “moderate” or “heavy” emphasis on the topic between 2019 and 2022.

The pandemic likely had a hand in this decline as well. Teachers who were delivering math lessons through a screen, or had to teach students in person and at home at the same time, searched for ways to boil subjects down to the essentials. They were encouraged to put data science on the chopping block.

“There was explicit guidance from field experts to cut [data analysis] out during that period,” Drozda said.

In the early months of the pandemic, education consultants and subject-matter experts put out guides to “priority” content—the key knowledge and skills that teachers should make sure kids knew before moving to the next grade. In some cases, these guides suggested scrapping early years data analysis in order to focus on foundational math concepts, like adding and subtracting within 20.

But the field doesn’t have to look at “core” math concepts and data analysis skills as an either-or proposition, Drozda said. His own organization has developed models to integrate the topic into traditional math courses and other subjects, like social studies.

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