Students' math proficiency is falling. Here are some solutions to the problem. | Opinion
America’s STEM crisis is real, and it is getting worse.
Recently released scores from the Nation’s Report Card are the latest evidence about the scale of the STEM crisis.
There were historic declines in math for fourth- and eighth-graders. There are fewer students reaching higher levels of achievement and greater numbers of students at the bottom levels of achievement.
More than a third of eighth-graders scored below the test’s “basic,” or lowest, level of achievement.
These students have trouble doing things like converting miles to yards, determining the shortest path between two points, and explaining the relationship between pints, quarts and gallons.
Eighth grade is a pivotal time for students, because they are honing skills they need for math, science, and technology careers, and are beginning to think seriously about taking STEM-related courses in high school.
More:What we learned inside Nashville's highest and lowest rated schools
Hear more Tennessee Voices: Get the weekly opinion newsletter for insightful and thought provoking columns.
Strengthen graduation requirements
Scores for high school seniors are falling, too. The average ACT score for the 2022 graduating class was the lowest since at least 1991, and only 16% of graduates met ACT’s STEM Benchmark, reflecting readiness for credit-bearing first-year college coursework in STEM subjects.
Policymakers across the country should strengthen graduation requirements so that all students — and especially STEM students — can succeed on their educational and career journeys after high school.
Without stronger high school graduation requirements, America risks letting more students leave high school without the skills they need to be globally competitive in STEM careers.
The warning signs have been evident for years, as other countries have bested the U.S. in international comparisons of math and science achievement.
Sign up for Latino Tennessee Voices newsletter:Read compelling stories for and with the Latino community in Tennessee.
What Tennessee is doing about the problem
Tennessee offers one possible model for other states. Tennessee combines a fully funded kindergarten through “grade 14” system with ambitious academic standards and instructional practices designed to help students succeed.
The state’s universities also use an innovative admissions system that considers the whole student through a combination of measures, including college readiness testing, so that all students have a fair and equal opportunity to demonstrate their academic achievement.
Tennessee’s program offers students as many opportunities as they would like to take a college readiness exam, for free, and combine their highest scores across those test sessions when they submit their college applications.
And Tennessee has adopted the use of non-degree credentials that certify mastery of career skills and workplace readiness to better match job-seekers with the jobs that are right for them.
Sign up for Black Tennessee Voices newsletter:Read compelling columns by Black writers from across Tennessee.
Low-income students are disproportionately affected
We must also ensure that all students have access to rigorous math and science courses, because taking rigorous science courses in high school is vital for college readiness.
But federal civil rights data have shown that students from low-income families and students of color face system-level disadvantages in accessing rigorous courses. Less than half of high-poverty high schools offer any physics courses, and only about a quarter of these schools offer courses in computer science.
Our STEM problem is also affecting who’s in the classroom and the journey they take to get there. The current teacher shortage is particularly acute for math teachers because principals simply can’t find math teachers to hire.
And interest in teaching STEM subjects continues to be alarmingly low, with less than a quarter of 2022 graduates who took the ACT indicated an interest in pursuing a STEM major.
Students will not have the access and opportunity to pursue STEM careers — in the classroom and beyond—without rigorous courses taught by highly qualified teachers.
This should be the wake-up call that America needs to get serious about our STEM problem.
Janet Godwin is the CEO of ACT Inc., the nonprofit assessment organization based in Iowa City, Iowa.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Math proficiency is falling. Here are some solutions to the problem.