Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • Internationally, the United States ranks higher in science (7th of 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] countries) and computer information literacy (5th of 14 participating education systems) than it does in mathematics literacy (25th of 37 OECD countries).
  • Average scores for U.S. fourth and eighth graders on a national assessment of mathematics improved from 1990 to 2007, but there was no overall measurable improvement in mathematics scores from 2007 to 2019.
  • Differences persist in U.S. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) achievement scores by socioeconomic status (SES) and race or ethnicity.
  • Differences in U.S. STEM achievement scores by sex are smaller than those by SES or race or ethnicity but are present; male students slightly outscored female students on some national assessments, although female students substantially outscored male students on a computer information literacy exam.
  • Less experienced STEM teachers (as measured by years of teaching) are more prevalent in schools with high-minority enrollment or high-poverty enrollment.
  • Data collected on U.S. remote learning in spring 2020 (during the COVID-19 pandemic) revealed differences in access to technology based on household income: 57% of households with income below $25,000 always had a computer available for educational purposes, whereas 90% of households with an income of $200,000 or more did so.

Elementary and secondary education in mathematics and science is the foundation for student entry into postsecondary STEM majors as well as a wide variety of STEM-related occupations. Federal and state policymakers, legislators, and educators are working to broaden and strengthen STEM education at the K–12 level. These efforts include promoting elementary grade participation in STEM, raising overall student achievement, increasing advanced high school coursetaking, reducing performance gaps among demographic groups, and improving college and career readiness in mathematics and science.

The indicators in this report present a mixed picture of the status and progress of elementary and secondary STEM education in the United States. Internationally, the United States ranks low among OECD nations in mathematics literacy (25th out of 37) but does better in science literacy (7th out of 37). In computer and information literacy, the United States ranks 5th among the 14 education systems that participated in that assessment. Within the United States, students’ achievement in mathematics has been essentially stagnant for more than a decade after showing steady improvement in the prior two decades.

The data presented in this report show persistent performance gaps by students’ SES and race or ethnicity. For example, on an assessment with a scale of 0–500, mathematics scores for low-SES students in a national cohort of eighth graders were 30 points lower than scores for high-SES students, and Asian and White students posted scores that were up to 53 points higher than scores by Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students. Similar patterns were seen for student performance in computer and information literacy.

Differences by sex on national assessments were small on average. Male students slightly outscored female students by 3 points in fourth grade in 2019 on a national math assessment, but there was no difference in scores between males and females in eighth grade. Female students outscored male students by 23 points on an assessment of computer and information literacy.

The data also reveal that student access to well-qualified mathematics and science teachers varies. A recent national study showed that virtually all middle and high school science and mathematics teachers have a bachelor’s degree and a regular or an advanced teaching certification; however, access to highly qualified teachers varies by school demographics. Schools with higher concentrations of low-SES and minority students had comparatively fewer highly qualified teachers (i.e., those with 3 years or more of teaching experience and with a degree in the subject taught).

High school STEM achievement and coursetaking frequently facilitate STEM-related postsecondary education and employment. Students who have positive perceptions of their mathematics and science abilities in high school are more inclined to declare a postsecondary STEM major. The majority of U.S. high school students enroll in either 2-year or 4-year postsecondary institutions immediately after graduation from high school; enrollment patterns, however, differ by demographic group. For example, Black students and students from low-income families enroll at lower rates than their peers. Among students who enter the workforce directly after high school, those who take STEM-related career and technical education courses are more likely than others to enter skilled technical jobs.

Finally, the United States faced an unprecedented situation in spring 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic when most elementary and secondary schools across the country abruptly shifted to a distance-learning model. Researchers estimated that students on average suffered some mathematics learning losses as a result, with low-SES students suffering disproportionately larger losses, in part due to their lack of access to the technology required for distance learning.

Collectively, the findings in this report suggest that the United States has yet to achieve the goal of ensuring equal educational opportunities in STEM for all students regardless of socioeconomic and demographic background. As noted in the National Science Board’s Vision 2030 report (NSB 2020), K–12 STEM education and high achievement for all students plays a critical role in ensuring that the United States is meeting the needs of the modern workforce and maintaining America’s position internationally. Given these needs and the importance of K–12 STEM preparation and the opportunities available to students who excel in STEM subjects, it is important to continue to focus on efforts that will increase the number and diversity of students interested in STEM and broaden opportunities for all students to succeed and thrive in STEM.