Chapter 1 | Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education
Raising overall student achievement, reducing performance gaps among different groups, increasing advanced coursetaking, recruiting more STEM teachers, and improving college readiness in mathematics and science are high priorities for education reform across the United States. How well does this country perform in these areas? The indicators in this chapter present a mixed picture of the status and progress of elementary and secondary mathematics and science education in the United States. Table 1-26 provides an overall summary of the data presented in this chapter. It shows that despite efforts at reform, there are substantial disparities in STEM performance and opportunity based on students’ race or ethnicity and SES. Some disparities persist between male and female students, though the differences are small relative to the disparities by race or ethnicity and SES. In the international arena, the United States performs in the middle of the pack among developed countries on the TIMSS assessments but at the bottom on PISA. Table 1-27 shows that U.S. performance overall in STEM has mostly improved over the long term, though short-term trends show some plateaus and downturns. Following is a summary of the chapter findings by major indicators.
Chapter summary of U.S. performance on K–12 STEM indicators
Summary of long- and short-term trends in U.S. performance on K–12 STEM indicators
NAEP mathematics assessment results show that average mathematics scores for fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders remained relatively flat over the past decade and then declined slightly from 2013 to 2015. These declines are the first since 1990 for fourth and eighth graders and since 2005 for twelfth graders. NAEP science results for fourth and eighth graders were more encouraging, with increases of 4 points in average scores since 2009, although average scores for twelfth graders did not change during the same period. NAEP data indicate that achievement gaps persisted in the United States: low-SES, black, and Hispanic students trailed their peers by large margins, and male students slightly outperformed female students on most NAEP exams. Data from ECLS-K:2011 showed patterns similar to those from NAEP with respect to performance by different subgroups: high-SES students outscored low-SES students, Asian and white students outscored black and Hispanic students, and male students slightly outscored female students. Gaps that were evident between disadvantaged and advantaged groups in kindergarten and first grade remained through the end of third grade.
In the international arena, the nation’s fourth graders scored in the top quarter of all participating education systems in mathematics and science on the 2015 TIMSS assessments, although their scores in either subject did not improve since the last administration in 2011. U.S. eighth graders also performed in the top quarter of participating education systems in 2015 and improved in mathematics but not in science since 2011. U.S. 15-year-olds’ performance on PISA in 2015 declined in mathematics and did not change significantly in science when compared with the last administration in 2012. The United States scored lower than 36 education systems in mathematics and 18 in science.
Efforts to improve student achievement include raising high school graduation requirements and increasing advanced coursetaking. These efforts are meeting with some success. Most high school completers are taking mathematics courses through at least algebra 2 and science courses through chemistry by the time they finish high school. The number of students taking mathematics and science AP exams continues to grow, with the number of students taking at least one of these exams nearly doubling in the past decade. Despite these gains, significant demographic gaps persist. Black and Hispanic students and students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds take fewer advanced courses and are more likely to attend schools that do not offer advanced courses. Although male and female students have reached parity in many areas, female students lag behind their male counterparts in taking advanced courses in specific fields of science such as AP physics.
Attracting and retaining high-quality STEM teachers continues to be a focus of educators and policymakers, as evidenced by the inclusion in ESSA of multiple provisions related to STEM teachers. The law allows states to use differential pay to attract STEM teachers and provides grants to create STEM master teacher corps, among other incentives. A recent international analysis suggests that the United States ranks low among developed countries with respect to the ratio of teachers’ salaries to the salaries of other educated workers, which may play a role in STEM teacher recruitment and retention.
Recent federal and state policies encourage greater use of technology throughout the education system to improve students’ learning experiences. The use of instructional technology in K−12 classrooms has been growing rapidly. Many school districts have invested in technology such as computers and mobile devices, and more than two-thirds of school district technology administrators indicated that all the schools in their system fully met Internet bandwidth recommendations for public schools in 2016. Rigorous research on the effects of instructional technology and online learning shows some modest positive effects on student mathematics learning, but more research is needed to determine which technologies are effective and under what conditions.
Ensuring that students graduate from high school and are ready for college or the labor market is an important goal of high school education in the United States. U.S. on-time high school graduation rates have shown steady improvement, reaching 83% by 2015. In the broad international context, the United States ranked 19th in graduation rates among 25 OECD countries with available data in 2014. The vast majority of high school seniors expect to attend college after completing high school, and many do so directly after high school graduation. Achievement data suggest, however, that the majority of college-bound students are not academically prepared for success in mathematics and science coursework at the college level.