Most of the draft education plans that states have so far submitted for review to the U.S. Department of Education include STEM-related school performance indicators. A number propose new, federally supported STEM programs and initiatives, but the availability of funds for such activities hinges on the outcome of negotiations over funding levels for relevant DOEd grant programs.
STEM education is emerging as an important component of K–12 education strategies that states are developing to meet the requirements of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Out of the 17 draft plans submitted as part of the Department of Education first round of review, the majority have incorporated STEM components as part of their approach to improving and assessing student achievement and performance. Recent analyses of these drafts conducted by EducationFirst, an education consulting firm, and Achieve, an education-focused non-profit, find that some states are planning to use ESSA funding to support new STEM initiatives at schools, while over two-thirds propose to incorporate science as part of a set of accountability measures for evaluating school performance. An additional 34 states are due to submit their draft plans in September.
The degree to which states will be able to fund new STEM initiatives as part of their education strategies is unclear due to ongoing congressional negotiations on the fiscal year 2018 budget. The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate three major DOEd grants that can be used to support state STEM initiatives, while the House Appropriations Committee has proposed both cuts and increases to relevant education programs.
14 draft plans include science assessment in school accountability systems
ESSA does not require state education plans to include STEM indicators in their accountability systems. However, according to the EducationFirst report, 14 out of the 17 plans states opted to include at least one STEM-related indicator. Unlike its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, which evaluated school accountability based on assessments of academic proficiency in math and language arts, ESSA gives states the flexibility to determine what factors should be used and how to measure student achievement.
State accountability plans measure school performance through "academic achievement indicators" as well as "school quality and student success" indicators. Plans must include four types of academic achievement indicators for the elementary/middle school and high school grade bands: language arts and math test scores; another academic acheivement indicator for elementary/middle schools; English-language proficiency test scores; and high school graduation rates. They must also include at least one school quality or student success indicator, such as college readiness, access to and completion of advanced coursework, or school climate and safety.
According to the Achieve report, 10 states have proposed in their draft plans to include science test scores as an indicator, with four additional states (and the District of Columbia) stating their intent to incorporate science indicators in future years. However, the report notes that only two of those states, Michigan and Tennessee, have established science goals in their ESSA plans to accompany their indicators.
The Achieve report points out that most states initially included science as an academic achievement indicator. However, DOEd has clarified through feedback provided on the Delaware plan that science can only be included as an academic achievement indicator for elementary/middle schools or, if applied to all grade bands, as a school quality or student success indicator. As ESSA requires that academic achievement indicators be given more weight than school quality or student success indicators in calculating overall school performance, science indicators will receive less consideration than math or English/language arts indicators if they are not treated as academic achievement indicators.
Unlike math and language arts testing, the frequency and composition of science assessment varies by state. Some states test science proficiency more frequently than the requirement of once every grade band (grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12), conduct end-of-year assessments instead of a proctored exam, or only test on certain science courses. States therefore have varying standards of measuring science proficiency and performance.
While most states currently require three or more science credits to graduate, there is varying guidance on what science concepts must be covered. The Achieve report states that over half of all states require students to take biology in order to graduate, while others also require students to complete courses in chemistry, physics, or a physical science.
Both reports find that most states have opted to include school quality and student success indicators that support science and STEM learning, including Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) test scores and career and technical education coursework or programs. However, the Achieve report argues that it is difficult to determine the impact of science or STEM learning with these types of indicators because the data collected does not delineate the percentage of students taking STEM coursework or the percentage of students who pass the courses or the AP/IB exams.
States look to advance STEM programs despite uncertain future for ESSA grant programs
In addition to having the flexibility to incorporate science into accountability systems, states also have the option to launch new STEM initiatives through ESSA funding programs. According to the Achieve report, many plans reviewed by DOEd thus far have outlined how they will use ESSA funding to support science and STEM education programs, with some states proposing specific plans to increase access, participation, and awareness of STEM fields and enriching teacher development opportunities in STEM.
According to guidance provided by DOEd earlier this year, states can use ESSA Title IV programs, such as the $400 million Student Support & Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG) and $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, to support traditional and non-traditional innovative STEM activities and enrichment programs. States can also use the ESSA Title II Part A $2.1 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program to support teacher development initiatives for strengthening STEM instruction and recruitment.
States’ ability to implement their plans for next year remains in doubt since some appropriations proposals would not provide funding for them. Although the Trump administration has publicly emphasized the importance of STEM education, it has proposed to entirely eliminate funding for these three grant programs, arguing that they are either duplicative of other DOEd programs or are poorly structured and show little impact. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed to increase funding for Title IV grants program by 25 percent while reducing funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers by 16 percent and eliminating Title II Part A’s instructional grants altogether. The Senate has not yet released its fiscal year 2018 funding proposal for DOEd.
As the 34 remaining states prepare to submit their draft plans to DOEd in early September, their proposals will provide a more complete sense of the level of state interest in emphasizing STEM within their education systems.