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Assessing the State of STEM Education This National STEM Day

ACT CEO Janet Godwin
By: Janet Godwin, CEO

Today is National STEM Day, an annual celebration dedicated to promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and careers for young learners. According to ACT data, not enough U.S. students are equipped for STEM opportunities — now or in the future. The current state of STEM readiness is cause for serious concern: Only 15% of students met the ACT STEM College Readiness Benchmark in 2023 — down from 20% just four years ago, in 2019.

The ACT STEM College Readiness Benchmark represents the level of readiness students need to have a 50% chance of earning a B or higher and about a 75% chance of earning a C or higher in typical first-year college STEM courses (for example, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics). ACT research shows that, for STEM majors, STEM scores are positively related not only to succeeding in individual math and science courses but also to earning a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher, persisting in a STEM major, and earning a STEM-related bachelor’s degree.

How can we boost STEM readiness? ACT research has identified some promising strategies. Taking rigorous science courses, including physics, in high school is vital to college readiness. Almost one-quarter of students taking at least three years of math or science met the STEM Benchmark, while only 2% to 6% of those who took no more than two years of math or science did so — a fourfold difference in science and more than an elevenfold difference in math.

Rigorous courses should be available to all students, not just those interested in earning an advanced STEM degree. However, in 2015, fewer than 50% of high-poverty high schools offered any physics courses, and only about 25% of high poverty high schools offered courses in computer science. This is a critical inequity because labor market projections point to strong growth in high- and middle-skill jobs, such as those in the healthcare professional and support services, financial operations, and computer and mathematical science fields. These occupations require more than a high school diploma but often less than a four-year STEM degree.

Entry into these occupations can be accelerated via high-quality dual enrollment programs through partnerships with local community colleges, four-year institutions, and business and industry. ACT uses the term “dual enrollment” to encompass early college high school, dual credit, and concurrent enrollment programs. But regardless of the name, all of these models allow students to earn college credit while still in high school. Research has demonstrated that students who earn postsecondary credits while simultaneously completing their high school diploma stay more engaged in the classroom and graduate at higher rates than their peers, and are also more likely to continue their education after high school to complete a recognized postsecondary credential.

Moreover, many dual enrollment programs in the technology and health fields are explicitly designed for — and with curricular input from — local employers. Such programs offer a unique opportunity for the business community to help better align K-12 and postsecondary education with workforce needs. States and local districts should invest in or seek public-private partnership opportunities to make access to such courses a reality for all students.

ACT will continue to provide these kinds of insights for students and organizations that support them so that we can work together and empower 20.2 million more learners to exit high school ready for postsecondary and work opportunities by 2032. Changing demographics demand that colleges and employers seek and engage a population that is increasingly diverse and mostly from low-income households. Our vision and aligned work will create solutions for a world of evolving opportunities and provide more support for learners to chart pathways toward greater mobility and economic prosperity.