The achievement levels of American students lag behind those of students in the most competitive economies, and the longer American students are in school, the less competitive they become in math and science. Mathematics and science are critically important areas for college and workforce preparation as it fuels a new economy for Central Texas and beyond. A recent National Research Council report emphasized science and math education as a priority area for bolstering U.S. competitiveness. In Central Texas specifically, the economy is not only more diverse than ever before, but is largely driven by occupations that require and build upon a highly educated workforce, with computer and mathematical and architecture and engineering making up the largest concentration of local employment. Moreover, Information Technology ranked highest in high-wage, high-growth jobs projected for 2009-2019 in the region.[i]
As we project the skills and education needs required for competitive jobs in a global, technologically advanced economy, we find that advances in job requirements are outpacing changes in student outcomes. School reformers and business groups now place greater emphasis on STEM skills, and new public-private partnerships to integrate technology into classrooms are emerging. While Central Texas students are performing generally well in reading/ELA, they are having more difficulty in mathematics and science in general, and dramatically in certain grades, primarily middle school grades. Also, when examining achievement among different groups of students, Hispanic and black students had lower passing rates on TAKS in all grades, with only 65% of black students passing the exit level (11th grade) mathematics test, compared to 95% of Asian and 91% of white students. The report also found that science achievement gaps by ethnicity are larger than in any other subject. In mathematics, low income students, along with their non-low income peers had lower passing rates at each successive grade level. The greatest disparity was found in eighth grade science, in which only 58% of low-income students passed compared to 88% of non-low income students.[ii]
Knowledge in core subjects, such as mathematics, language arts, and science, is critical for post-secondary success. Research dictates that middle school math, particularly as it relates to Algebra I, is a gateway subject. Mastering algebra highly correlates to success in higher math and to college and job readiness. Failure to master algebra highly correlates to poor results in higher math and less likelihood of progression to higher education. E3 Alliance did a longitudinal study looking at this issue, and Central Texas’ experience is no different. The percentage of students who passed TAKS Math declined as they were promoted annually to a higher grade (from 5th grade to 9th grade), from 88% of the 2002-2003 cohort of 5th graders passing the TAK S Math to 72% passing in grade 9 (2006-2007). School districts across the region continue to be concerned about student performance in middle school math and science.[iii]
Not just in learning, but teaching as well has experienced large gaps in the STEM fields, both nationally and in the Central Texas region. Secondary mathematics, secondary science, bilingual education and ESL remain the areas hardest to hire in. Over 85% of secondary science teachers in our poorest schools are inexperienced, while the rate of inexperienced teachers in the most affluent schools is far below this rate.[iv]
At the same time that math and science achievement demonstrates the need for gains, Texas now requires that high school students complete four years of math and four years of science to include Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, and a course beyond Algebra II. In addition to the changes in the course requirements, the rigor of the standardized assessments for high school is increasing, including end-of-course examinations for 12 high school courses. According to high-school transcripts, less than half of high-school graduates nationwide are prepared for college-level math and science.[v]
Differences among demographic groups are of considerable concern given the shifts toward larger Hispanic populations and larger low-income student populations in large school districts. As these students come to make up larger proportions of school district enrollments, persistently low performance among these groups will create numerous challenges for school districts, institutions of higher education, and employers.
A strategic opportunity for KDK-Harman to engage more intensely in STEM activities, and that integrates with the aforementioned recommended initiatives of technology and extended learning time, the Foundation seeks to target innovative teaching and learning in STEM, and its evaluation, for educating low-income students as well as preparing providers (i.e. teachers, schools, and nonprofit organizations) on the rigor and successful and sustainable implementation of these programs.
[i] 2010 Central Texas Education Profile, E3 Alliance.
[ii] 2010 Central Texas Education Profile, E3 Alliance.
[iii] 2010 Central Texas Education Profile, E3 Alliance.
[iv] 2010 Central Texas Education Profile, E3 Alliance.