STEM Education a Hot Topic on Capitol Hill

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Publication date: 
16 April 2007

No Child Left Behind "has had significantly more success in assessing student performance than in improving it." - The Commission on No Child Left Behind

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education reform continues to be a high priority on Capitol Hill this spring, driven by the need to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and by the recognition that excellence in STEM education is an important factor in the nation's ability to remain globally competitive. Some developments are highlighted below.

Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind:

Beginning with the 2007-2008 school year, No Child Left Behind requires states to conduct assessments in science as well as reading and math. In its FY 2008 budget request, the Administration proposed that science be included with reading and math in states' "adequate yearly progress" calculations.

NCLB, which authorizes K-12 education funding to states from the Department of Education (but not NSF or other science departments or agencies) was originally enacted in December of 2001, and is now due for reauthorization. Since its inception, it has received criticism on many fronts. In February, the Commission on No Child Left Behind, an independent, bipartisan group of 15 education leaders, issued a series of recommendations designed to improve the law when it is reauthorized. "Our work has uncovered shortcomings in both the implementation of the statute and in some tenets of the law itself," the Commission states in its report, "Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children." As one example, it notes that, "by allowing states to set their own content and achievement standards, [NCLB] has respected the long-standing tradition of local control over education. However, this has resulted in unacceptable variations in what constitutes proficiency.... And there are growing concerns that state standards do not match what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college and the workplace. Clearly, many states are demanding too little of their students."

The Commission's report contains about 20 recommendations addressing issues such as teacher and principal effectiveness; improvements to the accountability system by using growth models; maximizing the options for students in poorly-performing schools; improving the fairness and accuracy of assessments; establishing high standards that prepare students for college and the workplace; and improving states' data systems.

"In 2007," the report says, "when young people in Milwaukee and Atlanta are competing with young people in Beijing and Bangalore, it is difficult to understand why Wisconsin's definition of proficiency should be different from Georgia's and why both would differ significantly" from that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In its discussion of standards, the Commission advocates "the development of voluntary model national content and performance standards and tests" in science, math and reading, based on the NAEP. "A distinguished national panel, including members of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), should be commissioned to create the standards and tests, extrapolating from the form and content of NAEP frameworks.... In addition, the panel would ensure that any standards and assessments it produces would be aligned with college and workplace expectations." For accountability purposes, states could adopt these national standards or continue to use their own. However, the Commission recommends that the U.S. Secretary of Education "periodically issue reports that compare the rigor of all state standards relative to the national model standards using a common metric." Information on the Commission and its work, including the full report (222 pages) and an executive summary, can be found at .

Several bills have been introduced that address aspects of national science standards and science assessments. The SPEAK Act, introduced by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) in the House (H.R. 325) and by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) in the Senate (S. 224) would add science to the biennial NAEP assessments of student achievement in grades 4, 8, and 12; require the NAGB to develop voluntary national content standards in science and math; and authorize competitive grants to states for adopting such standards. Sen. Ted Kennedy's (D-MA) SUCCESS Act (S. 164) would require increased NAEP science assessments and encourage development and adoption of and alignment with challenging standards. Ehlers' Science Accountability Act (H.R. 35) would amend No Child Left Behind to incorporate science achievement measurements into states' accountability metrics. Summaries and text of these bills can be found at .

AIP and Member Society Support of Education Initiatives:

Suggested improvements to No Child Left Behind were also issued by the STEM Education Coalition. The American Institute of Physics and four of its Member Societies (the Acoustical Society of America, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the Optical Society of America) signed a STEM Education Coalition letter to the relevant authorizers. This letter advocated that, as part of the NCLB reauthorization, Congress should strengthen the Education Department's Math and Science Partnership program; authorize grants for the establishment or strengthening of state-based P-16 Councils; authorize programs to hire and train K-8 Master Teachers in science and math; provide dedicated funding for STEM teacher professional development; support after-school programs that emphasize STEM areas; promote STEM specialty high schools; and dedicate funding for improved elementary and middle school math instruction. (The complete text of the letter can be viewed at ).

AIP, ASA, AAPM, AAPT and OSA also signed onto two other recent STEM Education Coalition letters. One letter supported Rep. Ruben Hinojosa's (D-TX) PALS Act (H.R. 524) to authorize a pilot program at NSF for improving secondary school science laboratories and instrumentation. Another letter supported House S&T Committee Chairman Bart Gordon's (D-TN) "10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds" bill (H.R. 362), which would expand NSF's Noyce Scholarship program to attract STEM majors to teaching; authorize centers for the improvement of undergraduate STEM education; and revise the NSF Math and Science Partnership program to prioritize teacher training, which could include summer institutes, workshops, and master's degree programs for teachers.

Report on Effectiveness of NSF Math and Science Partnership Program:

In January, NSF released an evaluation of its MSP program, which brings together STEM higher education faculty with school districts, states and other partners to improve K-12 STEM instruction. Since 2002, 52 partnerships have been funded through this program, involving 150 higher education institutions, more than 550 school districts (and more than 3,300 schools) in 30 states and Puerto Rico, and over 70 businesses, informal science organizations, community-based organizations and state education organizations. According to an NSF press release, an analysis of 123 schools participating in the MSP program showed, over a three-year period, "significant improvements in mathematics proficiency, with a 13.7 percent increase for elementary, 6.2 percent increase for middle-school, and 17.1 percent increase for high-school students. Science proficiency at each level showed marked gains as well since 2002, with a 5.3 percent increase for elementary, 4.5 percent increase for middle-school, and 1.4 percent increase for high-school students." The 10-page NSF MSP National Impact Report can be found at .