Over the past few years, there has been much debate over a so-called “STEM shortage”—the idea that the United States higher education system fails to produce enough skilled workers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. National data suggest that although the percentage of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field was quite consistent from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, STEM popularity has trailed off in recent years. For instance, in the 2008-09 school year, only 15.1 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in STEM fields, down from 16.7 percent in 2002-03 and well off the high of nearly 22 percent in the mid-1980s.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that employment opportunities in STEM fields will grow over the next six years at a rate almost 1.75 times that of non-STEM fields. These are highly paid innovative jobs that need to be filled for the U.S. to grow economically, discover creative solutions in business, health care and energy, and sustain global competitiveness. Even accounting for different education levels, workers in STEM jobs receive higher compensation and are better protected against unemployment.

President Obama has highlighted the importance of STEM education on multiple occasions and the administration has initiated a number of public-private partnerships to increase STEM awareness among youth. These initiatives, which include media and business partnerships, national STEM competitions, and outreach programs, are certainly a step in the right direction. But could we do more inside K-12 classrooms to increase students’ interest in STEM and prepare them for the tough courses ahead in college?

Explaining the Shortage

Some researchers and policymakers point to a number of problems that arise both during and after college that have created the STEM shortage. The percentage of students who choose a STEM major is quite low and more students switch out of than into STEM majors during their college career. Those college graduates who do obtain a STEM degree often do not stay in these fields after graduation. Lucrative opportunities outside STEM fields, such as consulting in financial fields, await some of the top graduates and pull them away from STEM employment. Another area of concern is foreign-born students, particularly in graduate STEM education. These students often want to stay in the U.S. to work in STEM fields but are faced with immigration road-blocks. With the Startup Act 2.0, the Senate is working on one part of the problem by attempting to give visas to foreign-born students with graduate STEM degrees.

However, many of the current suggested solutions do not look far enough upstream. Research suggests that the difficulties of early STEM courses and grade inflation occurring in non-STEM courses is a significant contributor to the STEM shortage. Prior factors and better preparation, in terms of AP courses and higher SAT scores, are great predictors of STEM persistence. Thus, it appears that a more focused solution to the STEM shortage would involve better science and math preparation of students before they get to college.

The Failure of K-12 in Preparing Future STEM Majors

Data from NAEP tests and other research on achievement suggest that nearly all students simply are not prepared to enter the difficult sequences of science and math courses required of STEM majors. The NAEP patterns in science and math show that, since 1990, a larger percentage of 4th and 8th graders are proficient or advanced than 12th graders. In other words, despite a high school dropout problem that should eliminate the most severely struggling students from these calculations, still woefully few high school seniors are prepared for college-level science and math courses. Due to gifted programs, tracking, and the eventual high school prerequisites, students essentially move through a funneled system of science and math courses. Once a student falls behind, they are unlikely to catch up and be prepared to pursue a STEM major in college.

Overall, science scores are dreadful. In the most recent years of testing, only 1 in 5 twelfth graders (2009) and 1 in 3 eighth graders (2011) met the level of proficiency in science. Just 1-2 percent of students are at the advanced level in science.

But not all of the NAEP data portends doom and gloom for STEM. The percentage of students in all tested grade levels who are proficient or advanced in math has been steadily increasing, particularly during the past decade. Moreover, the percentage of students who are at the advanced level in math has increased to 7-8 percent for younger students, although it remains much lower, at 3 percent, for 12th graders.

Often the questions at the proficient and advanced levels for the 12th grade tests are clearly topics that students need to understand before arriving at college to be in a position to succeed in STEM courses. For instance, a proficient level science multiple choice question asks students to order the levels of organization in living systems from simple to complex (i.e. from elements to organs). A similar example of an advanced level math question asks students to solve a relatively simple algebra equation to calculate an annual rate of population increase. Seemingly, students who miss these questions stand no chance of excelling in college biology or calculus, at least not without significant help from the very beginning of their college careers.

Even college students who are already STEM majors think the K-12 system is lacking. In a 2011 survey commissioned by Microsoft of then-current STEM majors, only 1 in 5 students thought their K-12 education prepared them “extremely well” for college STEM courses. Nearly 2/3rds of the STEM majors thought the U.S. education system is doing a poor job of teaching STEM compared to education in other countries. Still, 51 percent of males and 68 percent of females said that a teacher or class got them interested in STEM before college. Thus, there’s still hope that K-12 education can spark an interest in STEM under the right circumstances.

Policy Attempts to Improve K-12 Math (and Science?)

To date, federal educational accountability policy has focused mostly on math and reading/language arts as a means of improving the state of public education. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) gave states a significant amount of discretion in determining the level of standards students should be held to in these subjects. NCLB also focused on sanctioning low performing schools instead of rewarding high performing schools. In effect, states were incentivized to set low standards to minimize the number of schools failing NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress target (AYP). Thus, we currently have a federal accountability system that suggests Mississippi is doing relatively well (77 percent of schools met AYP in 2010) and Massachusetts is doing poorly (34 percent of schools met AYP in 2010), while results from the rigorous NAEP test suggest quite the opposite (MS — 19 percent of 8th graders proficient in math in 2011; MA — 51 percent of 8th graders proficient in math in 2011).

Although NCLB requires states to test students in science at least three times between 3rd and 12th grade, these test scores are not required in the calculation of AYP. Conversely math and reading test scores always count towards the calculation of AYP. Prior to 2011’s NCLB waivers, only 11 states used science test scores in any state or federal accountability system. Some research suggests these states performed better during the early period of NCLB than states where science was not linked to accountability. Other research suggests that the typical accountability focus on math and reading reduces time spent on and depth of science instruction.

New Educational Accountability Policy Solutions

NCLB currently languishes in an interim state. To date, thirty-three states have been granted waivers and given even more state-level flexibility in determining what counts, at what levels, and for whom. We need a flexible but tough federal educational accountability system that aims to improve education for all students while avoiding the pitfalls from current and previous systems. No educational accountability policy will be perfect, but there are clear and simple ways to help tailor policy to improve science and math preparation for K-12 students. Here are four ways the next iteration of NCLB can work to improve science and math learning for all students:

1. First and foremost, accountability policy should include science as a key subject area alongside math and reading/language arts. The percentage of students who are proficient or advanced in science is likely to stay flat or decline without this change.

2. Focus more on rewards for schools, teachers, and students who perform well and less on punishment for those who do not. Instead, we should seek to provide more assistance for those at the bottom of the distribution.

3. Any new system should focus on gains and not levels. Research suggests that a level system (a set passing target for all students, regardless of where they begin) encourages educational triage or a focus on students in the middle part of the distribution. A gains system would likely avoid this problem and encourage progress for all students, no matter how far ahead or behind they begin the school year.

4. States should join together and adopt the Common Core Standards in math and the Next Generation Science Standards. We need to set the bar high across the country with these rigorous standards and push teachers and students to engage in challenging content.

These steps are just the beginning to improving our K-12 public education system in science and math. Once we start this journey, we should begin to develop better student measurement tools beyond standardized tests and improve our means to evaluate teachers. Still, until we take at least the basic steps to move forward in improving the science, math, and general education of our K-12 students, we will not increase the number of STEM majors at the college level and make great progress in reducing the STEM shortage.

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