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STEM Index Reveals Education-Job Disconnect

By Kevin Wilcox

The proportion of U.S. jobs in STEM fields is growing-but the proportion of students interested in STEM professions is not.

June 3, 2014-The percentage of jobs created in the United States that require skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) continues to climb steadily, while the percentage of students interested in those fields has remained essentially unchanged since 2000, according to new research conducted by U.S. News and World Report .
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Teacher and students in classroom

The U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index examines eight key components to quantify this disconnect between the job market and student interest. The components include the percentage of U.S. jobs in STEM fields, the percentage of college degrees awarded in STEM majors, and the percentage of high school students interested in STEM careers.

"We had a broad awareness of the issues with pipeline...and lack of interest. Bringing as many of these longitudinal data streams together confirms some of the theories that were out there about STEM degrees not keeping pace-there is a big demand for STEM jobs," notes Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News and World Report .

The index serves as a complement to the STEM Solutions national leadership conferences that U.S. News and World Report has sponsored for three years to discuss the issues. "We wanted to produce something that could be a catalyst, to bring some original research to these events that we were having," Morse says. The index factors in the performance of younger students in the math segment of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests-administered to fourth- and eighth-graders-as well as the proportion of total advanced placement (AP) tests given in STEM subjects. It also factors in SAT and American College Test ( ACT) STEM performance.

"We wanted to get a wide range of the education spectrum," says Matthew Mason, a research analyst who worked on the STEM Index.

The U.S. economy has added approximately 4 million STEM jobs since 2000, a 30 percent increase that occurred during a period that included a deep economic crisis. Meanwhile, the percentage of college degrees that were awarded in STEM fields dipped between 2007 and 2010 and is at the same levels now as in 2000.

The percentage of high school students who report an interest in STEM careers is also unchanged, after dipping in 2004 and climbing slightly in 2009. More troubling, the underlying data show a pronounced gender gap in the figure, as well as markedly less interest among minority students.

"When you dissect that data a little more, in 2013 male interest was about 39 percent and female interest was 16 percent. That's been a pretty big constant as a difference," Mason says. The data also reveal that 50 percent of those students who enter high school as freshmen report an interest in a STEM career path are no longer interested by the time they graduate.

"There could be many reasons why this is happening," Morse says. "The STEM courses in high school require more skilled teachers. The index shows that advanced placement tests are rising rapidly. But the proportion of STEM APs has fallen. That's another validation that the interest in STEM is faltering."

Morse notes that a growing percentage of high school students are from minority groups that have traditionally been less likely to pursue STEM careers. Additionally, some schools might suffer from a lack of teaching and educational resources with which to engage students in the more difficult STEM courses and AP tests.

U.S. News and World Report chose the index format, which compares percentages against a baseline, for several reasons, Morse notes. Absolute numbers from the individual components would be given on disparate scales, and therefore difficult to compare. Also, although some of the absolute numbers in some components are actually rising, they are not rising when considered as a proportion. For instance, the number of students taking AP STEM tests is actually rising, but because the total number who are taking AP tests in all subjects is rising more dramatically, the percentage of AP tests taken in STEM fields is actually falling.

"We know the index can mask the absolute movements," Morse says. "This was a way to show relative movement against a base order to see it in context."

Morse points out that the students may not be thinking ahead to their actual careers. "Despite the talk that these are more high-paying jobs, and there is a payoff, it hasn't translated into increased interest at the high school level," he says. "There is a belief ... that there needs to be more interest in wanting to do STEM post-high school as the way of filling the pipeline of skilled, educated workers," Morse says. "The STEM [Index] shows those efforts haven't made a meaningful difference."

Morse says U.S. News and World Report plans to update the index annually for at least the next three years.


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