Wide Variation in STEM Preparation

As our world continues to digitize and technology increasingly replaces labor in the American economy, training in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is becoming more valuable to young people entering the labor market.

Microsoft, for example, has more than 6,000 open jobs in STEM fields, and this number is growing.1 In the United States, the unemployment rate for computer-rated occupations is half that of the country as a whole.2 In 2011, the U.S. Commerce Department estimated that STEM jobs would grow by 17% between 2008 and 2018, versus about 10% for other sectors.3

A good measure of America’s STEM preparation is the proportion of American high school students passing STEM-related Advanced Placement (AP) tests. AP offers 10 STEM tests: Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Computer Science A, Environmental Science, Physics B, Physics C-Mechanics, Physics C-Electricity and Magnetism, and Statistics. To create a measure of relative success on these exams, we used data provided by College Board on passage rates (defined as receiving a score of 3 or higher on the 5-point scale).

There was wide variation in performance on these 10 tests. Massachusetts, the highest-scoring state, saw an average of 1 in 6 students in the class of 2013 graduate high school with an AP STEM credit. Mississippi, the lowest, saw only 1 in 80.

Clearly, the United States will not be able to meet its workforce demands at the current STEM success rate. Anthony Carnevale, a prominent researcher on job patterns and the leader of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, estimated that Mississippi alone will have 43,000 STEM-related jobs by 2018.4 In a state like Mississippi with a 7.9% unemployment rate (as of summer 2014),5 this could provide an essential opportunity for an economically depressed part of the country. But if students lack the necessary skills and content knowledge, these jobs will remain out of their reach.

What can aspiring state leaders do to combat this problem? At base level, states can start by increasing access to AP courses, especially for minority and low-income students. This has been a major push across the country over the past several years, driven in part by evidence that upward of 80% of African-American graduates whose PSAT scores suggest they are qualified to enroll in AP courses graduate high school without having done so.6

However, merely increasing access to courses is not enough—especially if the students are not receiving passing scores. Additional support is needed. One leading organization is the nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). Operating in more than 600 schools across 26 states—and with support from ExxonMobil and others—NMSI’s teaching training programs have helped dramatically increase the number of students taking and passing AP STEM exams. To leverage this push while preserving limited state dollars, state leaders should partner with local corporations that would benefit from an increase in K–12 STEM success. 

One such business is Tata Consultancy Services, which has invested staff involvement and financial resources to expand its goIT program. With demonstrated success in a number of Ohio cities, goIT has provided more than 7,000 students with in-school IT career and technology awareness workshops, as well as a three-day, hands-on technical summer camp aimed at getting students interested in IT careers. This great example of business engagement in schools has resulted in a 27% increase in the percentage of students who choose to major in computer science or STEM programs.

With greater business involvement and national attention on the need for more STEM graduates, progress will be made in filling those open positions at Microsoft and other corporations in need of workers. 

State Percentage of Students Who Graduate Having Passed a STEM Exam
Alabama 5.3%
Alaska 8.0%
Arizona 5.9%
Arkansas 6.3%
California 12.5%
Colorado 12.1%
Connecticut 15.4%
Delaware 7.3%
District of Columbia 4.4%
Florida 9.7%
Georgia 10.1%
Hawaii 5.3%
Idaho 6.0%
Illinois 11.1%
Indiana 8.5%
Iowa 5.3%
Kansas 4.7%
Kentucky 6.9%
Louisiana 1.9%
Maine 11.7%
Maryland 15.9%
Massachusetts 16.0%
Michigan 9.4%
Minnesota 10.8%
Mississippi 1.2%
Missouri 4.2%
Montana 5.5%
Nebraska 4.0%
Nevada 7.1%
New Hampshire 9.6%
New Jersey 13.1%
New Mexico 3.5%
New York 13.7%
North Carolina 10.9%
North Dakota 4.0%
Ohio 7.8%
Oklahoma 4.5%
Oregon 6.4%
Pennsylvania 8.5%
Rhode Island 6.6%
South Carolina 8.5%
South Dakota 7.1%
Tennessee 4.3%
Texas 7.5%
Utah 12.3%
Vermont 13.1%
Virginia 13.9%
Washington 10.1%
West Virginia 3.6%
Wisconsin 11.1%
Wyoming 5.2%