Study: Less Than Half US Students Ready To Fill High-Tech Jobs

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Study: Less Than Half US Students Ready To Fill High-Tech Jobs

by Vince Bertram, CEO of Project Lead The Way

Summary: Technology and Engineering Literacy exam results highlight need for expanded access to STEM curricula

The resounding headline of the results of the first-ever Technology and Engineering Literary (TEL) exam is that girls may be closing the gender gap and show strong promise in the areas of critical thinking and problem solving. While these numbers released May 17 represent positive news, there is more to consider.

Forty-five percent of girls taking the TEL test scored proficient or better, 3 percentage points higher than the 42 percent of boys who did likewise.

Girls demonstrated stronger skills than boys in collaborating, designing systems and communicating using technological tools. The test, administered by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), contradicts a perceived gender bias in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields that discourages girls from pursuing them. If we can get to girls early enough in school, before that gender bias sets in, they can do just as well — if not better — than boys.  

“Girls have the abilities and critical-thinking skills needed to succeed in fields of technology and engineering,” proclaimed Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the federal Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, in response to the test results.

That girls are just as capable of boys in succeeding in STEM fields is true, of course, but it’s not the most important finding of this new research.

The finding that should concern educators, policymakers, employers, parents and students alike is that fewer than half of either girls or boys met proficiency levels on the test, administered to about 21,500 eighth-graders at 840 public and private schools across the country.

Equally, if not more disconcerting, is that the TEL exam results indicate a significant racial achievement gap. White and Asian students averaged 160 points out of a possible 300, Black and Hispanic students averaged scores of 128 and 138, respectively.

Those proficiency percentages need to be much higher — for boys, girls, and all races/ethnicities.

The disappointing proficiency figures not only confirm concerns about broad performance in high-demand areas related to technology and engineering, but also confirm the concerns employers around the country have expressed about not having enough students in the educational pipeline who will be qualified to fill the high-tech jobs of today and tomorrow.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures underscore the point: Skills in computer-science fields such as software development, information technology (IT) and cybersecurity are critical components in more than 180 different types of industries. More specifically, an April report from the IT security firm CloudPassage noted that there were more than 200,000 open jobs in cybersecurity alone in the U.S. in 2015 — and that’s just one sector of the entire STEM field.

We can look at NAEP’s numbers as a disappointment or as an opportunity. The first TEL exam gives us a baseline to know how our students are performing. Our task now is to find ways to improve proficiency for all students.

Almost half of the test-takers, on a questionnaire, said they hadn’t taken any courses related to technology or engineering. It is essential that all students have access to engaging opportunities in these highly relevant fields, and we must impress upon students the increasing importance of taking advantage of the opportunities.

What the new NAEP TEL exam makes clear is that we must better prepare students for careers in technology and engineering fields. That starts with access to courses, beginning at an early age, that make these subjects relevant, interesting and understandable.

Vince M. Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, a nonprofit that provides transformative educational and professional development opportunities for students and teachers across the U.S. He is also the author of the New York Times best-selling “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis.”

Study: Less Than Half US Students Ready To Fill High-Tech Jobs