Compared to 2014, U.S. 8th-graders are getting slightly better at applying their knowledge of technology and engineering to real-world challenges — and girls are outscoring boys even when they don’t take a specific class focusing on those topics, according to the newest results of the Technology and Engineering Literacy Report Card.
Part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the results show the average score increased from 150 to 152 on a scale of 0-300 and that scores increased in the three content areas — technology and society, design and systems, and information and communication technology. Students’ scores also increased in the three practice areas — understanding technological principles and developing solutions, achieving goals, and communicating and collaborating.
The score of 152 brings students closer to the proficient level of 158, which represents “mastery over challenging subject matter,” Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics' Assessment Division, said during a press call. “It is an aspirational goal and it is a challenging goal.”
But according to NAEP descriptions, students scoring in the basic range of 116 still understand that creating and using technology helps people solve problems, and that there are positive and negative effects of technology. They can also select different tools and media for specific purposes and display data for “simple research tasks.”
“What a basic student can do is not inconsequential,” Carr said.
The results, however, show performance gaps, with 59% of white students scoring in the proficient range, compared with 23% of black students and 31% of Hispanic students. And 60% of students not eligible for free or reduced-price meals scored proficient, compared with 30% of those who are eligible. Since the first administration of the assessment in 2014, the gap between white and Asian students has increased, with 66% of Asian students now scoring proficient.
The scores on the assessment, which includes more scenario-based tasks than multiple-choice questions, also show that learners at the advanced and proficient levels are the ones who continue to improve, while scores for students at the lower levels stayed roughly the same.
Not like math and science
Technology and engineering have sometimes been referred to as the forgotten subject areas in the STEM acronym.
“One reason is because math and science are required classes throughout a student's educational career, unlike technology and engineering,” Matt Walton, a technology and engineering education teacher at Glen Allen High School in Henrico County, Virginia, wrote several years ago in a post for CNN. “As a country we need to focus on improving in all areas of science, technology, engineering and math education if we are to succeed in creating and competing for the jobs that will be prevalent in the decades to come.”
Efforts have increased in recent years to incorporate technology and engineering into the curriculum, beginning even at the preschool level, and to ensure schools have more well-prepared STEM teachers. A report released last fall from the Code.org Advocacy Coalition and the Computer Science Teachers Association showed that, since 2013, the number of states with at least one policy related to computer science education in K-12 schools has increased from 14 to 44. Related developments include efforts such as new engineering curriculum resources from the Museum of Science, Boston, and an outreach initiative at the University of Hawaii to get K-12 students interested enough in engineering to take courses that would qualify them to pursue the subject in college.
But the State of Computer Science report also showed that students of color, those receiving free and reduced-price meals, and students in rural communities are still less likely to attend high schools that offer computer science.
In 2018, 57% of 8th-graders reported taking one course, which can include robotics, coding or web design, compared with 52% in 2014. And earlier this month at the American Educational Research Association conference, Jan Cuny, program director for computing education and workforce development at the National Science Foundation, said that because more high school students are taking computer science courses, colleges and universities are seeing an increasing demand.
When 8th-graders take such courses, they score higher on the assessment. Those who responded on a student survey that they felt confident in their ability to complete a variety of engineering or technology-related tasks also scored higher.
Project Lead the Way (PLTW) — which offers K-12 professional development and classroom programs in engineering, computer science and biomedical science — is another example of giving students opportunities to practice the problem-solving skills that come with designing a mobile app, a new product or a way to improve upon an existing item.
Vince Bertram, president and CEO of PLTW, which is in roughly 11,500 schools nationwide, said that the growing emphasis on career learning has helped such programs expand.
"States are adopting career learning standards and including career learning in graduation requirements and accountability systems," he said in an email. "As a result, schools are implementing programs and providing experiences to help students develop high-demand and transportable skills to be successful in any career path they choose.”
In addition, school robotics programs are now widespread. And while researchers at the National Robotics Engineering Center’s Robotics Academy aren’t aware of a central data source on school-based robotics programs, growth in competitions, such as those sponsored by the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) likely point to an increase in access to instruction.
Out-of-school time makes a difference
Learning how to properly credit other people’s work was the skill area students reported spending the most time on in school (79%), followed by discussing how inventions affect people’s lives (69%), and designing or creating something to address a challenge (68%).
But as with the 2014 report card, the latest results show that time spent out of school — whether that’s at an after-school robotics club or a summer coding camp, for example — is a significant factor in whether students were more successful on the assessment. For example, those who reported that they’ve had multiple experiences outside of school to take something apart to fix it or see how it works earned an average score of 161 in the design and systems part of the assessment, while those who said they’ve never done that on their own time earned an average score of 150.
“Out-of-school learning programs — often called expanded learning — are a critical component of technology and engineering education,” Andy Shouse, chief program officer for Seattle-based nonprofit Washington STEM, said in an email.
In fact, extracurricular and community-based programs have largely preceded schools’ and districts’ efforts, he said, adding that such programs sometimes serve as a “training ground” for teachers who later implement the activities and lessons during the school day. “In the best cases, out-of-school programs work in ways that complement what is happening in schools but are not constrained to serve the particular goals of formal K-12 schools.”
But cost, transportation and other barriers, such as parents’ awareness of available STEM opportunities “can mean programs disproportionally benefit middle class, white students,” Shouse said. Those factors likely explain the wide score gap between students eligible for free or reduced-price meals and those who aren’t.
There are, however, multiple efforts among libraries, museums and other organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, to bring free learning opportunities to students who are underrepresented in STEM fields and less likely to have access.
A different gender gap
The latest results also show that initiatives in recent years to get girls interested in STEM have been effective. Not only did females have a higher average score than males — 155 to 150 — they also scored higher in almost every area, especially on information and communication technology and in practices that involve communicating and collaborating.
One test task using these skills, for example, is creating a website to promote a teen recreation center, which involves organizing parts of a podcast to communicate a message, choosing facts to convey in a video and providing feedback to someone who worked on the project.
Girls, however, are still less likely to take courses in technology and engineering. “The message to administrators,” Carr said, “is we need to encourage girls to take more of these technology and engineering courses. They would probably do even better.”
The results, however, don't suggest girls are stronger in all STEM areas. Recent research from Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has found that in higher socioeconomic areas, boys have higher scores in math than girls, and factors related to "local conditions and processes — in addition to larger societal forces — play a role in shaping" those gender gaps.
Also on the press call, Lisa Stooksberry, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, suggested that the board would like to extend the assessment into the 4th and 12th grades, where the patterns might be different, and eventually report the results by state level, as with other NAEP assessments.