Evidence suggests the following benchmarks are important markers of future success along the STEM continuum. Due to greater availability of research and assessment in mathematics, more evidence was found for benchmarks in this area than in science. These benchmarks informed the STEM in Minnesota cradle-to-career project committee in selecting key measures.
Rigorous core math program in high school
All high school students should have a rigorous core program in mathematics, whether they plan to pursue college or a workforce training program. A study by ACT, Inc. found that graduates require a comparable level of readiness to succeed in college-level courses and learn job-specific skills in workforce training programs. The study looked at mathematics skills in the areas of algebra and algebraic thinking, geometry and geometric thinking, and data representation and statistical thinking (1). ACT's college readiness benchmarks indicate students should have a minimum ACT mathematics score of 22 in order to succeed in college courses (2).
High school math proficiency
Evidence suggests that succeeding in a STEM major in college requires both proficiency in STEM subjects, especially math, and interest in a STEM career. However, research by ACT, Inc. indicates that fewer than 1 in 5 12th-grade students meets both criteria (3). All students require STEM proficiency. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills fostered through STEM coursework and understanding are important even to those who choose not to pursue STEM postsecondary education or careers (4).
High school interest in STEM
Both interest in a STEM career and proficiency in STEM subjects, especially mathematics, are necessary prerequisites for students to select and succeed in a STEM major. Students who are proficient in math and who indicate high interest in STEM are the most likely to pursue STEM majors and careers (3).
Advanced STEM coursework in high school
High school students who take advanced math and science courses are more likely to enroll in college, pursue math and science majors, and complete a bachelor's degree. General math and science courses provide the foundation needed for more advanced coursework. These include basic mathematics, prealgebra, algebra I, and geometry in math, and science survey, introduction to physics, and biology 1 in science. Advanced courses covering higher-level material include courses such as algebra II, precalculus/analysis, trigonometry, statistics and probability, and calculus in math, and advanced biology, chemistry, and physics in science. Data indicate a positive trend in this area, with the average number of advanced math and of advanced science and engineering credits earned by high school graduates increasing between 1990 and 2009 (5).
Challenging courses can be a gateway to rigorous study and high levels of achievement. They can also provide opportunities for students to develop meaningful personal connections to STEM subjects. Options for advanced coursework at the high school level include Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, and dual-enrollment in college and online classes. Rigorous coursework also positions students for success in postsecondary education. Studies have correlated passing AP exams with successful college outcomes (6).
In Minnesota, high school students must complete an algebra II credit or its equivalent in order to graduate and to provide the opportunity for more advanced study of mathematics prior to graduation. Evidence suggests that completing a high school math course higher than algebra II can substantially increase the odds of successfully completing a bachelor's degree in college (7)(8). A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that students who took algebra II/trigonometry in high school were 40 percent more likely to complete an associate's or bachelor's degree in six years than those who did not, and those who took precalculus/calculus in high school were 93 percent more likely to complete a degree program than those who did not (8).
Completion of advanced high school math courses has also been related to entry into STEM majors in college (8). In a nationally representative longitudinal survey conducted from 1995-2001, students were more likely to successfully complete a STEM degree if they had strong academic preparation in high school, including having taken trigonometry, precalculus, or calculus; earning a high school GPA of B or higher; scoring in the highest quarter on college entrance exams; and planning to attain a graduate degree (9).
Rigorous high school coursework in math and science can also help prepare students to be internationally competitive in those fields, as indicated by scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for U.S. students passing AP calculus and physics compared to their domestic and international peers (10).
Qualified high school math and science teachers
Education research widely supports the importance of teachers in students' success. Studies suggest that teacher quality accounts for variations in student achievement more than any other school-based factor (11). Teachers' critical role holds true in STEM areas as well. Research indicates that shoring up K-12 teachers is a high leverage point for increasing the number of students who pursue and attain STEM degrees (3).
Effectively teaching STEM subjects requires deep subject-matter content knowledge coupled with strong teacher training specific to STEM (6). Both subject-matter expertise and pedagogy are important. Evidence suggests that subject-matter preparation of secondary math and science teachers is important to student achievement, with the evidence particularly strong in the case of mathematics (11).
Attainment of bachelor's degrees, associate's degrees, and vocational certification in STEM
The U.S. economy requires an adequate pool of people who are prepared for STEM-related careers through completion of an associate's or bachelor's degree or vocational certification related to STEM. Demand for individuals with preparation in STEM currently exceeds supply, and many occupations requiring STEM preparation are projected to grow in the next decade (12).
The number of undergraduate degrees awarded has increased both in STEM and non-STEM fields over the past two decades. Bachelor's degrees are the most prevalent science and engineering degree conferred. The number of bachelor's degrees rose from 2000-09 in science and engineering fields in general, with the exception of computer sciences which sharply increased from 1998-2004, sharply declined through 2008, and then held steady in 2009. Community colleges also play an important role in preparing students for science and engineering-related occupations that require certificates or associate's degrees, and in preparing students for transfer into a 4-year college or university. In some cases, students who transfer to a 4-year college or university do not obtain an associate's degree prior to transfer. The number of science and engineering associate's degrees increased from 2000-03, declined through 2007, and increased in 2009, generally mirroring the trend in computer sciences bachelor's degrees. In 2009, associate's degrees in science and engineering and engineering technology accounted for approximately 11 percent of all associate's degrees nationally (5).
Attainment of advanced degrees in STEM
A recent report from the National Research Council called for increasing the number of students who pursue advanced degrees and careers in STEM, including boosting participation of female and minority students, among one of three primary goals for K-12 STEM education. Developing the next generation of scientists and innovators is key to our economic growth and scientific and technological advancement (12).
1. ACT, Inc. (2006). Ready for college and ready for work: Same or different? Retrieved from http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/ReadinessBrief.pdf
2. ACT, Inc. (2010). What are ACT's college readiness benchmarks? Retrieved from http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/benchmarks.pdf
3. Business-Higher Education Forum. (2010). Increasing the number of STEM graduates: Insights from the U.S. STEM education and modeling project. Retrieved from http://www.bhef.com/publications/increasing-number-stem-graduates-insights-us-stem-education-modeling-project
4. Thomasian, J. (2011). Building a science, technology, engineering, and math education agenda: An update of state actions. Retrieved from National Governors Association website: http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/1112STEMGUIDE.PDF
5. National Science Board. (2012). Science and engineering indicators 2012 (NSB 12-01). Retrieved from National Science Foundation website: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/pdf/seind12.pdf
6. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2010). Report to the President, Prepare and inspire: K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America's future. Retrieved from White House website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-stemed-report.pdf
7. Fancsali, C. (2002). What we know about girls, STEM, and afterschool programs: A summary. Retrieved from Maryland MESA website: http://www.jhuapl.edu/mesa/resources/docs/whatweknow.pdf
8. Ross, T., Kena, G., Rathbun, A., KewalRamani, A., Zhang, J., Kristapovich, P., & Manning, E. (2012). Higher education: Gaps in access and persistence study (NCES No. 2012-046). Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics website: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2012/2012046.pdf
9. Chen, X., & Weko, T. (2009). Students who study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in postsecondary education (NCES No. 2009-161). Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics website: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009161.pdf
10. Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. (2007). Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Retrieved from The National Academies Press website: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11463&page=1
11. Bolyard, J. J., & Moyer-Packenham, P. S. (2008). A review of the literature on mathematics and science teacher quality. Peabody Journal of Education, 83(4), 509–535.
12. National Research Council. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Retrieved from STEM Reports website: http://www.stemreports.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/NRC_STEM_2.pdf