NSB News Release

Stagnant U.S. Test Scores Indicate that Millions May be Missing Out on STEM Opportunities

Average scores of 15-year-old students on the PISA mathematics and science literacy scales, by OECD education system: 2018

Average scores of 15-year-old students on the PISA mathematics and science literacy scales, by OECD (Credit and Larger Version)

July 8, 2021

The National Science Board today released the Elementary and Secondary STEM Education report that shows that the U.S. is trailing many of its global competitors in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. STEM skills are essential for many careers, including in fast-growing, in-demand jobs. Without a strong science and engineering workforce, it will be difficult for the U.S. to compete globally. The new report is part of the 2022 edition of the congressionally mandated Science and Engineering Indicators report on the state of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.  

“We need well-trained workers to produce new knowledge and innovations that drive the economy,” said Julia Phillips, who leads the Science and Engineering Policy Committee of the National Science Board. “For a country that considers itself a world leader, these test scores are not acceptable.”   

Among key statistics included in the report: The U.S. ranked 25 out of 37 countries in mathematical literacy, an important metric because a strong grasp of mathematics underlies most science and engineering endeavors.   

Related data also show that U.S. mathematics scores have not improved appreciably for a long time. Student performance on standardized tests in mathematics has been stagnant for the last 13 years over which data are available. In countries large and small, students are outperforming U.S. students in mathematics year after year.  

The new report also shows that results for science literacy are slightly better, with the U.S. earning a rank of 7 out of 37. The average science score also improved between 2006 and 2018.  

STEM performance also varies greatly across different demographic groups in the U.S. For the most part, minority students scored lower than their white peers on standardized testsStudents who rank low in socio-economic status (SES), as measured through the eligibility to receive free and reduced school lunches, also tended to score lower than students who were not eligible. Notably, for all racial/ethnic groups, low-SES students consistently perform significantly worse on these standardized tests than their higher-SES peers in the same demographic group.  

While the report does not directly address the causes for this disparity, it provides relevant data on topics such as teacher qualifications and training in different regions of the country, computer literacy, access to dual enrollment (i.e., students taking college classes while still enrolled in high school), and access to advanced placement classes in high school.  

Elementary and secondary education in mathematics and science provides the foundation that prepares students to go into science and engineering fields during their post-secondary education and positions them for jobs that require STEM skills – jobs that have proven to be particularly resilient during economic downturns, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Our nation must focus heavily on developing America’s science and engineering talent at all educational levels, from skilled technical workers to Ph.D. researchers,” says Phillips. “While educational policy is usually determined at the state and local levels and can vary widely across regions, national policymakers and those who distribute money for new science and technology programs must be a part of the conversation about fixing it, because the U.S. needs a STEM-capable workforce to ensure our national security and vibrant economy.” 

The report also includes preliminary data on the impact of COVID-19 on education. The pandemic caused significant disruption in school systems around the country, as many shut down all in-person learning and replaced classrooms with computer-based, online instruction at homeEarly studies show that this disruption has exacerbated learning disparities across the nation. Data presented in the report indicate that during the pandemic, there were notable disparities in access to resources and time with teachers. 


About Science and Engineering Indicators 

Indicators is prepared under the guidance of the National Science Board by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), a federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation.  NCSES is the nation's leading provider of statistical data on the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.  

About the NSB

The NSB identifies issues critical to NSF’s future, establishes its policies, and serves as co-head of agency with the NSF Director. The Board also advises the President and Congress on policy matters related to science and engineering (S&E) and S&E education. Selected for their distinguished service and accomplishments in academia, government, and the private sector, the Board’s 24 presidentially appointed members are leaders in science and engineering, and in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. 

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Alison Gillespie, National Science Board, (703) 292-2557, algilles@nsf.gov

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