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Gender Gap in STEM Education Continues Despite Appeal of High Wage Careers, Strong Job Growth Rate

ACT’s Annual STEM Report—Now in its Fifth Year—Indicates Female Students Continue to Lag Behind Males in STEM Readiness

IOWA CITY, Iowa—STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers are equally appealing to female and male students, but the achievement gap between the two groups continues, with females again trailing males in terms of readiness for college STEM coursework, according to ACT’s newly released report, STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do.

“Women make up nearly half of the US workforce, but they are woefully underrepresented in STEM careers,” said Suzana Delanghe, ACT chief commercial officer. “Our report references promising practices designed to encourage all students to pursue STEM education and careers, but those practices are not enough. We must accelerate efforts to engage and prepare girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM when they graduate from high school.”

ACT’s fifth and latest edition of its annual STEM report focuses on the more than 2 million students in the 2017 US high school graduating class—60 percent of all the nation’s graduates—who took the ACT® test. The ACT is the only college readiness exam in the US with a full science test and also the only one that reports a STEM score and a STEM College Readiness Benchmark score indicating students’ readiness to succeed in college courses such as calculus, biology, chemistry and physics, which are typically required for a college STEM-related major.

The findings indicate nearly equal interest in STEM exists among females and males overall (47 percent of females versus 50 percent of males).

A strong disparity remains between the two groups, however, in overall readiness for STEM courses: Just 18 percent of females—compared to 24 percent of males—met the STEM Benchmark. And among students who have an interest in STEM, the gap is even larger: 22 percent of female students met the STEM Benchmark, compared to 31 percent of males. In fact, females interested in STEM were less likely than males overall to meet or surpass the benchmark (22 percent vs. 24 percent).

“Clearly we have a lot of work to do” said Delanghe. “Encouraging young women to consider pursuing technically challenging careers must be on the top of educators’ ‘to do’ lists.”

The ACT STEM score is based on combined results from the ACT math and science tests. Students who meet or surpass an ACT STEM score of 26—the STEM benchmark score—have a strong (75 percent) probability of earning a grade of C or higher in first-year college STEM courses. They also are more likely than those who don’t to 1) earn good grades, 2) persist in a college STEM major and 3) earn a STEM-related bachelor’s degree.

As noted in the report, opportunities for future careers in STEM fields are plentiful: The number of jobs in US STEM occupations grew by 10.5 percent from May 2009 to 2015—more than twice the growth rate of non-STEM occupations. And this trend is expected to continue, with the US projecting that computer occupations alone will create nearly 500,000 new jobs between 2014 and 2024.

“STEM occupations represent an excellent career path for our young people,” said Delanghe. “Policymakers have the ability to do more to keep more students on the STEM career path and keep America’s workforce competitive.”

Recommendations

ACT makes several policy recommendations in the report to help improve STEM readiness:

Ensure that state graduation requirements emphasize the importance of rigorous science and math courses for all students. ACT has long advocated that all US students take a rigorous core curriculum: four years of English and three years each in mathematics (including Algebra I & II and geometry), science (including biology, chemistry, and physics) and social studies.

Pay teachers more. The US ranks 22nd out of 27 countries in average earnings for teachers. Federal and state funding must be increased to enable districts to pay higher teacher salaries, especially in critically important areas such as advanced math (Algebra II, calculus, etc.) and science (advanced biology, chemistry, and physics). “It’s long past time to put our money where our mouth is,” the ACT report observes.

Establish a loan forgiveness program for STEM teachers. ACT’s challenge to the federal government: Create and financially support a federally-matched loan forgiveness program to improve the pipeline of STEM teachers by the end of 2022.

Provide equitable access to both high-quality math and science courses and real-world work experiences for all students via dual enrollment programs. Entry into STEM occupations can be accelerated via high-quality dual enrollment programs through partnerships with local community colleges, four-year institutions and business and industry.

“We must take action if our nation is to remain competitive in the global economy,” said Gretchen Guffy, ACT director of policy. “The recommendations shared in this report will help drive greater access and opportunity for all students and better ensure the US can keep pace with the increasingly STEM-reliant economy’s workforce needs.”

Other Findings

Other findings revealed in the ACT report include the following:
  • Underserved students (racial/ethnic minority, low-income, and/or first generation in college) remain at a huge disadvantage when it comes to STEM readiness. No more than 5 percent of students who have at least two of the underserved characteristics met the STEM benchmark. 
  • Students in high-poverty areas may not have adequate access to rigorous science and math coursework in high school, which is vital to college readiness in STEM.
  • Teachers can often be the greatest inspiration for students, but interest in teaching STEM subject areas continues to be alarmingly low. Fewer than 1 percent of 2017 ACT-tested graduates indicated an interest in teaching math or science. 
STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do and The State of STEM in Your State reports for each state and the District of Columbia can be accessed for free on the ACT website at www.act.org/stem.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is trusted as a leader in college and career readiness, providing high-quality assessments grounded in nearly 60 years of research. ACT offers a uniquely integrated set of solutions designed to provide personalized insights that help individuals succeed from elementary school through career.

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