Elementary student examining molecule model

Who Benefits From Next-Generation Science Assessment? The U.S. Workforce.

When the Carnegie Corporation examined how states are revamping science assessment in a report this year, a decade after Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were released, it was candid in its conclusion.

“It is not clear that a field-level agenda for reforming state assessments exists,” the Carnegie report said. “The target is clear—state assessments that align with the new science standards—but a roadmap for getting there is still emerging.”

While states have made great strides to implement next generation standards in areas such as curriculum, a New Meridian report on state science testing nationwide reveals a patchwork of approaches, many of which are works in progress. Education experts say that improving science assessments will not only enhance student learning in the subject, but also support a more well-rounded and educated student population.

U.S. employers could be the biggest beneficiaries of that improvement, as they are increasingly hungry for workers who have science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. Some experts say the need will extend even beyond what are now considered technical jobs, as automation, artificial intelligence, and other technologies pervade all corners of the workforce.

“Basically, all jobs are going to have a STEM component, whether it be the service industry all the way through welding and construction,” Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board and former Kentucky education commissioner, said at New Meridian’s webinar, Exploring 10 Years of Progress in Science Education.


STEM in the Workforce

The numbers certainly show that the need for STEM-trained workers is not slowing down. In the decade beginning in 2011, the number of Americans working in STEM jobs grew by 20 percent according to the National Center for Science and Education Statistics. Of the 146 million people ages 18 to 74 in the 2021 workforce, almost one in four (24%) were working in STEM jobs—about 35 million people.

The number of STEM jobs is expected to continue growing. While estimates vary, many predict an upward trend. A report by SmartAsset based on government statistics shows that more than 800,000 new STEM jobs could be added in the coming decade.

“The U.S. is facing a significant need to develop adequate talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to ensure economic strength, security, global competitiveness, and environmental health,” according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Perhaps more important is that STEM skills often translate directly to continued opportunities in the workforce, and not just the prospect of finding and keeping a job. People working in STEM positions also make dramatically more money. A U.S. worker in a STEM occupation in 2021 had a median annual wage of more than $95,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, a non-STEM worker’s median annual pay was about $40,000.


NGSS-Aligned Assessment is the Missing Link

The opportunity created by STEM occupations naturally highlights the importance of science education. In order to take advantage of higher-paying STEM jobs, today’s students need STEM skills, and experts say that begins with exposure to science in early grades.

Next-Generation Science Standards were a step in that direction, focusing on scientific application and problem solving over rote learning and factual knowledge. In the decade since they were released, at least 44 states—some counts say more—have adopted NGSS or three-dimensional standards based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education that preceded the NGSS. Many experts say the standards have had a positive impact on science education, and are optimistic that they will continue to do so.

However, studies show there is still a great deal of progress to be made, in both instruction and assessment. The average elementary school class dedicates about 20 minutes to science teaching each day, compared to about an hour for math and almost 90 minutes for English language arts, according to the Call to Action for Science Education, a 2021 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Education, and Medicine.

Assessment is also treated differently for science than it is for math and English, especially when it comes to federal requirements. “The law mandates testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school but requires an assessment in science only once in each grade-band, K-5, 6-8 and 9-12,” the report said. “It does not require science to be built into state accountability systems.”

Part of the recommendations contained in the report by the National Academies was a call for assessments that align with the philosophy of NGSS. “Traditional, large-scale, multiple-choice tests cannot capture the ability of students to engage in the practices of science and reason about evidence,” the report said, adding that, “multiple and varied assessments designed to check for conceptual understanding and proficiency with science practices are needed. The assessments need to both inform classroom instruction and provide information about the progress of schools as well as districts and states.”

Chris Lazzaro, director of science at New Meridian, noted that states have made progress despite the complexity and expense involved in producing NGSS-aligned assessments. “This really needs to be an evolution, and it was never really intended to be a revolution,” he said. “And so we’re still kind of mostly on course.”

Yet Pruitt said the stakes are high if the education system is going to properly equip students for a workforce that is increasingly dominated by technical skills. He said educators making the case for NGSS-aligned assessment can do so in stark terms.

“It’s not about a test,” he said. “The case is, if you want to keep a group of students poor their entire life, then don’t teach them science. If you want to actually help them become people who can be involved in the STEM economy, teach them science.”