This Tool Can Help Identify ‘STEM Deserts.’ But It Needs Your Feedback

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 03, 2019 2 min read
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The world is awash in data on student performance in—and attitudes toward—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning. The problem is that none of that information is particularly easy to find, and it’s really hard to compile bits and pieces into a complete picture.

Now the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that offers districts training on improving STEM learning, is trying to fill in the gaps. It’s created a new tool to make it easier to look at patterns that affect how students do in those fields.

Using its STEM Opportunity Index, unveiled earlier this week, you can quickly look up things like whether students in each state have access to science lab equipment; students’ attitudes toward STEM; whether a state’s math testing matches the high bar set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress; and whether teacher exams require teachers to demonstrate content in a STEM field.

In a way, it’s a bit like a more focused version of Education Week‘s own Quality Counts state reports, which look at a number of indicators to give a sense of which states offer students the best chance for success over the course of a lifetime.

For now, the STEM index is limited to state indicators, but it will start to include local and even school-based measures later this year. The tool does not issue states an overall score or grades, and that’s on purpose.

“When you get into grades, the competition between states and all that is not the objective,” said Bernard Harris, NMSI’s executive director. “It’s to raise the visibility of where the needs are, where the gaps are, and bringing in our programs or other partners.”

The index’s origins date back to 2017, when NMSI promised to start studying and collecting information on “STEM deserts”—places where students lack sufficient opportunities for learning in those subjects. Part of the process was developing a framework for what constitutes factors that contribute to good preparation—things like well-trained teachers, inclusive enrollment practices in advanced classes, and so forth.

Expansion Coming

This summer, NMSI will start to add a bunch of new data sources that will allow for a look down at the level of school districts and even individual schools.

Much of that data will come from the U.S. Department’s granular office for civil rights data collection—for example, whether students have access to advanced coursetaking. That’s an important addition because research indicates that rigorous coursework, including in the STEM fields, is linked to improved high school and college success.

In all, NMSI officials said, the tool will incorporate data from some 114 different sources of public data, including NAEP data, ACT scores, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other Education Department collections.

For now, the index is still in its beta phase, and NMSI is looking for lots of feedback on how to make it even more useful—as well as partners that could help add more functionality, or who even might be interested in sharing proprietary data that could be uploaded into the tool. So be sure to check it out and send your thoughts to

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