STEM Beats - March 2012

Cheating Scandals Hurt Everyone

March 29, 2012

How’s this for far-fetched? In 2010, about 42 percent of fourth-graders at a Missouri elementary school passed the state’s math test. When the same class of students took the fifth grade math test the following year, only four percent passed. Why the abrupt drop? According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the fourth grade scores were probably a mirage, one small instance of “the biggest cheating scandal in American history.” If true, these charges of cheating by school staff have sobering implications for the future of school reform.

The AJC used statistical analysis to ferret out the most likely cases of cheating. The findings? “Overall, 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000. For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.”

Cheating scandals have been much in the news lately. They roiled Atlanta schools two years ago and are making headlines in Washington, DC and New York City, among other places. They have been fodder for both champions and skeptics of current accountability reforms. For the champions, they reveal the rotten core of the current system. For the skeptics, they reveal the rotten core of test-based accountability.

Neither group is right. The vast majority of school staff and teachers do not cheat. When they do, though, it hardly seems fair to place most of the blame on the tests.

Yet that hardly seems to matter. The cheating scandals merely amplify the distrust that's already far too pervasive--of teachers, administrators, reformers, tests, you name it.

They may also take down innocent bystanders. Take, for example, the teachers who are measured in part on their students' academic growth. If they get a crop of students whose results on the prior year's tests were inflated through cheating, even the best teachers will seem like failures. (See, for example, this story in The Washington Post.)

So what's to be done? The AJC councils vigilance. Districts that monitor things like the numbers of erasures on tests or unlikely swings in student test scores can help nip scandals in the bud. The AJC piece notes that, "for years, Los Angeles’ scores were among the least suspicious for big-city districts. But when California stopped conducting routine erasure analysis in 2008 for budget reasons, the number of improbable score changes in L.A. climbed steeply."

Denial is certainly not the answer. If they gain momentum, cheating scandals will make thoughtful and constructive conversations about school reform all but impossible.

California Middle Schools Lag in Science

March 27, 2012

If your children are in the California schools, take note. We’ve learned in recent months that they probably won’t spend much time learning science in elementary school, and they might not have to take much science in high school. Now a new study from WestEd and the Lawrence Hall of Science shows that their middle school experience might be a bit better, but still far from ideal.

The survey did find some moderately good news. In almost all the districts they surveyed, “more than three quarters of students in grades 6-8 are enrolled in science courses.” More than two out of three teachers said they had access to the internet and equipment “such as a sink and measuring tools.” About three in four said they had “majored in a science-related field or having obtained a single-subject credential for teaching science.”

All good news is of course relative. You’d think, for example, that every student in grades 6 through 8 would be taking science, but maybe beggars can’t be choosers. It's also worth noting that a sink and measurement tools (like beakers) aren’t necessarily state of the art science equipment, even for middle schools. And it’s troubling that one in four middle school science teachers in California has “neither a background nor a single-subject credential in science.” The numbers are worse in schools that serve mostly low-income students.

Perhaps most startling is the finding that that only about 14 percent of teachers “use a pattern of classroom practices that supports regular engagement in the practices of science.” In other words, fewer than one in five regularly have their students “work in groups; do hands‐on or lab science activities or investigations; design or implement their own investigation; participate in fieldwork; record, represent, or analyze data; write reflections; and present to the class.” That is bad news for California students.

Science, it seems, is getting short shrift in California’s elementary, middle and high schools. The state can ill afford to stay on this course. Its fourth and eighth grade scores in science are among the nation’s lowest. States often reap what they sow.

Tags: STEM & the states, science

Do Teachers Believe Stereotypes about Girls and Math?

March 23, 2012

Are teachers of math biased against girls? Certainly not on purpose. Yet new research from the University of Texas suggests that many succumb to the stereotype that girls are worse than boys at math. This research is the latest in a long line of studies that reveal just how pervasive that stereotype is.

The UT researchers examined data on 15,000 high school students and found that, “even with the same grades and the same test scores, the teachers are still ranking the girls as less good at math than the boys.” Prior studies have found this pattern in the earlier grades. One especially troubling study recently found that girls believe math is for boys as early as second grade. The new research from UT suggests that these trends persist through high school, a time when many students begin to consider their career choices. Our own research at CTEq finds that this bias survives well into adulthood.

There is no grain of truth in the stereotype about girls and math, but it can be awfully hard to shake such corrosive misconceptions when they have a very strong hold.

Yet we have to, because the stakes could hardly be higher. Early biases, however subtle, can have big consequences later on. Women are far less likely than men to go into areas like computer science, physics and engineering. At a time when we need all hands on deck, that's a lot of talent to squander.

Tags: women & girls, math

Learn to Innovate, Innovate to Learn

March 22, 2012

On occasion, CTEq welcomes guest blogs about key issues or engaging ideas that may be of interest to our audience. Dr. Mitzi Montoya is vice provost and dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University. 

The future of STEM education can be summed up in one simple idea:

If you want to equip students to tackle complex, multidisciplinary challenges in a real-world environmentafter they graduate, then you need to teach them how to tackle complex, multidisciplinary challenges in a real-world environment before they graduate.

At the College of Technology and Innovation, we base as much of our curriculum as possible on projects.  Students in our three major program areas – engineering, applied science and management – start with simpler projects that fit within the confines of a single class, and then advance over four years to more complex tasks that require larger teams and longer time periods.

Our senior iProjects bring students, faculty, and industry or government sponsors together to find innovative solutions to real-world problems.  Each project involves four to eight students working together in an interdisciplinary team.  The partner commits to funding the project for materials, use of labs and equipment and other expenses, and also provides a project liaison, who works with the student team to develop detailed project requirements, negotiate changes, and present interim and final results.  Partners receive full access to all project outcomes and retain all intellectual property.

Among this year’s iProjects, the one everyone seems most excited about is the “dog waste digester,” sponsored by the town of Gilbert, AZ.  Located near Phoenix, Gilbert is home to the very popular “Cosmo” dog park, which gets more than 600,000 visitors each year. 

That’s a lot of dog poop.

Currently, that waste is taken to a local landfill, and it costs the city about $9,000 each year to dispose of it.  The digester our students are building will use solar power to convert the waste to methane gas, which would then be harnessed to power a light that will draw dog owners’ attention to the proper disposal area.  This iProject includes students and faculty from biology, engineering and psychology.

In a story last summer in the Arizona Republic, Assistant Town Manager Tami Ryall said town officials were “really excited at the opportunity to have the students design it.”

Faculty advisor Kiril D. Hristovski described the way the project fits in with the College’s mission: “In the real world, you work as a team and they should be able to function as a team.”

The iProjects are an exciting new model for higher education.  Students apply newly acquired knowledge, giving them tremendous workplace experience in a university environment.  Industry partners retain all intellectual property, access student creativity and expertise, and can assess potential intern and workforce candidates.  The College is able to attract and retain students of the highest potential because of the exemplary interdisciplinary team-based learning experience that these projects provide.

For more information, please check out our webpage:


Tags: STEM degrees

High School Graduation Rates: Improving, but Not Fast Enough

March 21, 2012

The U.S. graduation rate in 2009 was 75.5 percent, according to the new Grad Nation Report by the America’s Promise Alliance. That might not sound great, but it’s better than the rate in 2001, which was 72 percent. Still, the fact that one in four students graduates high school in four years is bracing news. Things are moving in the right direction, but not fast enough.

Consider the lot of the young person who doesn't finish high school. The unemployment rate of those students is about 13 percent. The vast majority of those who do have jobs get paid very little, don't have health insurance, and enjoy very little job security. It's staggering to think that this fate awaits so many of our young people. We're squandering so much talent.

The Grad Nation Report does point to some good news. Some states have been making rapid gains. New York State saw a jaw-dropping gain of almost 13 percentage points. Tennessee? Eighteen points. In addition, not as many high schools qualify as "dropout factories" where fewer than 60 percent of students graduate four years after they start. There were more than 2000 of these high schools in 2002. In 2010, that number dropped to 1550. Almost 800,000 fewer students attend such schools.

Stay tuned for the next Grad Nation report in 2013. Authors expect to have much better state-level graduation data by then.