RELEASE: Early High School STEM Perceptions Are Associated With Postsecondary Outcomes, New CAP Report Finds

Washington, D.C. — The future success of ninth graders—from high school graduation to college enrollment—is correlated with how they rate the usefulness of and their interest in math and science classes; redesigning the high school experience to become more interesting and relevant to students seems to be the best way to improve postsecondary outcomes. These are the main findings of a new report published by the Center for American Progress, which analyzes how student learning mindsets are related to future outcomes such as academic achievement, educational attainment, and pursuit of a degree in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The report’s analysis is contextualized using a case study from Cañon City, Colorado, where the district has implemented four pathways that determine the courses and electives students take based on their future goals. The district created a capstone requirement for all seniors to pursue a project of interest and partnered with local industry to provide internship opportunities for all high school students so that they can receive real-world job experience.

To better understand the relationship between interest and utility and student success, the authors analyzed two federal datasets—the High School Longitudinal Study (HSLS) of 2009 and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—to determine if there was a relationship between measures of these learning mindsets and key postsecondary outcomes. Among key findings:

  • Mindsets matter: Students’ attitudes toward their ninth grade math courses were correlated with on-time high school graduation. Likewise, students’ attitudes toward both ninth grade math and science courses were correlated with four-year college enrollment and pursuit of a STEM major.
  • Mindsets are especially important for students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM: The relationship between STEM mindsets and pursuit of a STEM major was strongest for female students and students from families with low incomes.
  • Mindsets differ by state: There are state-by-state differences in eighth grade student math interest and how students rate the importance of math.

Based on these findings, state and local policymakers should invest in measuring student learning mindsets, expand equitable access to career and technical education (CTE) programs that make learning relevant to student interests, and advocate for scalable school redesign efforts that can increase student engagement and promote the availability of successful STEM opportunities, especially to students who are traditionally underrepresented in those fields.

The report outlines a number of key recommendations at the local, state, and federal levels:

  • School districts should lead efforts within their communities to develop graduate profiles outlining the knowledge, skills, and experiences that students should have by the time they complete high school.
  • Communities should ensure that they are expanding and providing equitable access to high-quality CTE, internships, and apprenticeships, as well as offering advanced courses.
  • School districts should use well-designed student surveys to understand students’ learning mindsets.
  • States should provide resources, guidance, and technical assistance to school systems and communities to support equitable efforts to redesign the high school experience.
  • States should redesign the K-8 experience to ensure that students and families enter high school prepared for quality programs.
  • States should invest in developing frameworks for graduate profiles that are aligned with entry standards for four-year public institutions of higher education in the state.
  • States should support the development and deployment of high-quality student surveys for use by districts—without accountability stakes attached.
  • Congress should increase investments in CTE funding and the Student Support and Academic Enrichment block grant.
  • Congress should provide funding to close gaps in access to technology.

“Survey data have shown that middle and high school students aren’t engaged with school,” says Neil Campbell, director of innovation for K-12 Education at CAP and co-author of the report. “States and school districts should invest in high school redesign by equitably expanding access to opportunities such as career and technical education, apprenticeships, and internships to better engage students in their learning.”

“Making school more relevant to young people’s interests, backgrounds, and future goals is critical for engagement and success,” says Abby Quirk, a research associate for K-12 Education at CAP and co-author of the report. “Doing this right can encourage female students, students of color, and students from families with low incomes to pursue careers in which they have traditionally been underrepresented.”

“Math scores on the NAEP have been stagnant for years, but NAEP survey data suggest that making math more interesting and relevant to young students could help bolster achievement,” says Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at CAP and co-author of the report.

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