STEM Beats - August 2012

India Drops out of 2012 PISA Exams

August 27, 2012

India, home to one of the largest and fastest-growing student populations in the world, has decided to opt out of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) examinations, according to the national government. The reason? They think their students just aren't ready for it.

PISA, administered by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, is given to 15-year-olds every three years and is designed to provide a standard point of comparison for educational systems (Some countries, including India, had regions with enough variance in the educational systems to essentially have two entries). India participated for the first time in the 2009 exam, testing students in two of its states, and had originally intended to expand the test nationally for the 2012 outing. However, India scored 72nd out of 73 systems in the last round -- topping only Kyrgyzstan -- and decided to opt out of the latest round. It's unclear whether they'll participate in 2015, the next time the test will be offered. The test covers reading, math and science, and in math, India's two states finished second and third to last, again only beating Kyrgyzstan.

While the India Times article expresses disappointment with India's showing in the last round, India's results are a baseline, and the United States would still do well to ensure its students are receiving high-quality educations. And unlike the United States, India's public-school system is still being established; to do so, the entire country is making heavy, purposeful investments in the school system.

As a recent report from the Center for American Progress points out, spending on education in India has quadrupled over the last 30 years, even though many of its students still face brutal poverty (most families earn only $1.25 a day). India is investing in an ambitious goal to provide early-childhood education to 38 million students. Another component of the country's strategic plan to improve education includes recruiting and training 1.5 million more elementary-school teachers in order to ensure that every primary-grade student has a strong educational foundation. While students now might not be as ready as their government would like, the chances that students taking the 2024 PISA will be ready are exponentially high.

Finally, although India's educational infrastructure and capacity is still being built, the country is already graduating five times as many high schoolers as the United States is. The government wants to have 40 million students in higher education by 2020, which will mean an additional 26 million seats. By 2020, India will be conferring four times as many bachelor's degrees than the United States. The sheer amount of human capital, especially considering the increasing rate at which that capital is being educated, has the potential to overwhelm U.S. graduates on a global market.

How did the U.S. rank? Out of OECD member nations (and remember, even within partner nations, different education systems within the nations were tested), the U.S. placed 25th out of 33. Many of the partner countries and regions outscored the U.S., as well. The U.S., however, spends more than all other countries, save for Luxembourg, on education.

Khan Academy Launches Programming Series

August 24, 2012

Khan Academy -- the nonprofit that hosts an free online library of thousands of educational videos -- recently launched a collection of tutorials on computer science.

According to the introductory video, hosted by John Resig, head of the initiative for KA, and Sal Khan himself, the series is designed so that even someone with no background in computer science could pick up coding. The tutorials start with the basicsof Python and build from there; according to Resig, some of the first test-drivers were middle schools who easily created web sites within an hour.

Khan Academy isn't the first to offer free online lessons in coding -- Code AcademyThe New Boston and Udacity all developed similar series earlier -- but Khan is the most high-profile platform to tackle the subject. If the video is unclear, users can ask questions, which will be posted and answered.

The Khan videos, as well as other tutorial series, could potentially make quite an impact. Making programming fun and accessible for young students could spark an interest; particularly for girls and children of color, having a nonthreatening environment to test their skills out could help them build their confidence enough to take on the challenging coursework in high school and college that lead to a career. While the impact has yet to be measured -- or realized, really -- the potential for how this can affect the computer programming field could be quite high.  

Tags: computer science

Math, science ACT scores rise -- but not enough

August 23, 2012

ACT scores for the class of 2012 are out, and the results are worrisome: More than half of last year's graduating class is not prepared for colllege or a career, though improving scores in math and science show promise.

Over half of seniors -- 52 percent -- took the test last year, which benchmarks reasoning in English, reading, math, and science. Based on how past test-takers performed in their college courses, ACT estimates how students would likely fare in an entry-level course. For each subject, the bar for readiness is set where scores indicate a student has a 75 percent chance or better of earning at least a C in that class.

This year, only 25 percent of students met all four benchmarks, while 60 percent did not meet more than two. The brightest sign in the results, though, was that the percentage of students who met the Readiness Bar in math and science have crept up 3 points since 2008, to 46 and 31 percent, respectively. ACT officials acknowledged that statewide STEM initiatives may well have played a part in this.

While the improvement in science and math is commendable, both still lag behind reading and English; further, ever-present achievement gaps still limit the opportunities presented to students of color. African-American seniors averaged the lowest scores at 17.0, a number that contrasts sharply to white students (22.4) and Asian-American students (23.6).

Somewhat controversially, ACT announced earlier this summer that they were creating college- and career-benchmarking tests for 3-10 grades, ostensibly to help track progress toward strong scores on the ACT. However, the move was viewed with suspicion, as the objective of the ACT test, which would be aligned to Common Core and offer instant feedback to teachers, appeared quite similar to the missive of the two consortiums, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, funded with Race To The Top grants. PARCC had initially contracted ACT to develop several items for its test bank.

Tags: math, minorities

Despite recession, degrees in demand

August 20, 2012

Want a job? Get a degree. Want a really good job? Get an engineering degree.

Despite the ongoing recession and flat job growth, employers in Michigan -- one of the hardest-hit states in the economic downturn -- are amping up recruitment offers to attract talent to the area and automotive industry, according to Detroit Business. The unemployment rate in the state, which reached a 14.9 percent high in 2009, has plunged to 8.6, putting it in line with the rest of the country. Despite this, employers are still saying there's a shortage of skilled technical workers, particularly engineers and IT professionals. As a result, starting-salary offers are creeping up as employers try and match short supply with heavy demand. This mirrors Change the Equation's findings that for every STEM jobseeker there are three job openings.

And while engineering is the most in-demand profession, the current recession underscores the fact that any college education is particularly useful in today's economy, according to a recent analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While some of those grads may be underemployed -- meaning their jobs don't necessarily require their skills -- unemployment for those with at least a bachelor's degree is only about 4.5 percent, as compared to 9.4 for those with only a high-school diploma. In addition, the analysis found that job growth over the past 20 years has been fueled solely by demand for college degrees, underscoring the primacy of higher education in today's business market.

So what can be done? Students need to be prepped at the K-12 level in order to succeed in a rigorous college setting. And once students reach higher education, women and minorities often represent untapped resources in STEM degree programs. Michigan's example is clear: To keep up with the increasing demand for 21st-century skills and grow our economy, we need to focus absolutely on these goals.

Tags: higher education, jobs & workforce

When a Plummet in Passing Scores is a Positive Sign

August 15, 2012

There's probably only a few parents that would willingly move their children into a state or district where proficiency rates dropped drastically over the last year. But in the case of Virginia, who recently released the results of its latest SOL (Standards of Learning) testing round from this school year, the decline in the number of students passing is actually a great sign.

That's because Virginia's superficial "decline" was the result of the state's implementation of more rigorous state math exams, along with updated cut scores.  The latest iteration of the SOLs incorporates technology for about 15% of the questions, instead of relying on traditional multiple-choice strategies. This development mirrors what will likely happen in the two Race To The Top-funded exams, created by the Smarter Balanced and PARCC consortiums (Virginia is not participating in either).

The implementation of a new exam is great for Virginia students and parents.  The older version of the test had cut scores -- the pass rates for a test -- that were much lower than those seen in other states nationally. That meant students considered proficient in Virginia might not be if they moved states. Now, though, the new test scores will give students and parents a clearer idea of how they actually stack up to peers across the U.S. (It should be noted that despite the low cut scores, Virginia students still did pretty well on the nationwide NAEP exams).

Next up? Science exams. Cut scores in science have not been updated since 1998, so the updated test -- set to roll out next spring -- will be very welcome.

Tags: standards, STEM & the states