Chapter Overview

Elementary and secondary education in mathematics and science is the foundation of human capital that advances science and engineering research, technology development, innovation, and economic growth. Every U.S.-educated scientist and engineer begins his or her science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the K–12 grades. There, talents may be built or discovered, interest in STEM cultivated, and knowledge acquired that allows students to succeed in pursuing STEM degrees in postsecondary education. For those who do not pursue STEM, the mathematics and science knowledge needed to function as consumers and citizens emerges largely from K–12 education. Within this context, federal and state policymakers, educators, and legislators are working to broaden and strengthen STEM education at the K–12 level. Efforts to improve mathematics and science learning include promoting early participation in STEM in the elementary grades, increasing advanced coursetaking in high school, recruiting and training more mathematics and science teachers, and expanding secondary education programs that prepare students to enter STEM fields in college.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the first reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in nearly a decade, was signed into law in late 2015. The act identifies STEM as a crucial component of a well-rounded education for all students. It also allows states to act on a variety of STEM priorities, including mathematics and science standards and assessment, recruitment and training of STEM teachers, formation of STEM specialty schools, and increased access to STEM for underserved and at-risk student populations. ESSA also provides new focus on engineering and technology by explicitly including computer science in its definition of STEM and by allocating federal funds to help states integrate engineering and technology into their science standards and assessments.

Educators have joined a state-led effort to develop common national K–12 mathematics and science standards, as well as assessments and indicators for monitoring progress in K−12 mathematics and science teaching and learning. Many states have adopted and implemented the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, and 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. Progress is also being made on a national system for monitoring progress in STEM education (see sidebar Developing a K–12 STEM Education Indicator System).

Developing a K–12 STEM Education Indicator System

Chapter Organization

To provide a portrait of K−12 STEM education in the United States, including comparisons of U.S. student performance with that of other nations, this chapter compiles indicators of pre-college mathematics and science teaching and learning based mainly on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the Department of Education, supplemented by other public sources. Table 1-1 contains an overview of the topics covered in this chapter and the indicators used to address them. Whenever a comparative statistic is cited in this chapter, it is statistically significant at the 0.05 probability level.

This chapter focuses on overall patterns in STEM education and reports variation in STEM access and performance by students’ socioeconomic status (SES), race or ethnicity, and sex. The chapter also examines differences by SES and sex within racial or ethnic groups. Research suggests that STEM education can provide historically underrepresented populations with pathways for obtaining good jobs and a higher standard of living, if they can access these opportunities (Doerschuk et al. 2016; Leadership Conference Education Fund 2015; Wang and Degol 2016). Data in this chapter reveal consistent achievement and opportunity gaps in STEM education across the K–12 spectrum. With few exceptions, the data show major, substantial effects of SES on achievement levels, early and persisting differences among racial or ethnic groups, often substantial achievement differences by SES within racial or ethnic groups, and some differences in male and female achievement. These results are consistent across all types of data discussed, including tests of different student panels, tests that follow specific age cohorts, international tests, student coursetaking in high school, on-time high school graduation rates, scores on college readiness assessments, and immediate college enrollment rates.

This chapter is organized into five sections. The first section presents indicators of U.S. students’ performance in STEM subjects in elementary and secondary school. It begins with a review of national trends in mathematics and science assessment scores in grades 4, 8, and 12, using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP section also includes data from a new assessment of eighth graders’ technology and engineering literacy. Next, the section presents data from a longitudinal study that tracks individual students’ growth in mathematics and science knowledge over time: the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010–11 (ECLS-K:2011). The section ends by placing U.S. student performance in an international context, using data from two international studies: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which examines the mathematics and science performance of students in grades 4, 8, and 12; and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examines the mathematics and science literacy of 15-year-olds.

The second section focuses on STEM coursetaking in high school. Using data from NCES’s High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09), data from the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program, and data collected by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, it examines high school students’ participation in mathematics and science courses, including engineering and computer science.

The third section turns to U.S. elementary, middle, and high school mathematics and science teachers, reviewing data presented in Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 (National Science Board [NSB] 2016) and presenting new data comparing U.S. teachers’ salaries with those of their peers in other countries.

The fourth section examines how technology is used in K−12 education. The section begins by presenting the latest national data on the availability or use of various technological devices in classrooms, Internet access in schools, and the prevalence of online learning among K–12 students. It then provides a review of research on the effectiveness of technology as an instructional tool to improve student learning outcomes.

The fifth section focuses on indicators related to U.S. students’ transitions from high school to postsecondary education. It presents national data for on-time high school graduation rates, trends in immediate college enrollment after high school, academic readiness for college, and students’ plans to major in a STEM subject in college. This section also examines the high school graduation rates of U.S. students relative to those of their peers in other countries. Together, these indicators present a broad picture of the transition of U.S. students from high school to postsecondary education, the topic of Chapter 2.

Indicators of elementary and secondary school mathematics and science education