Education wonks are used to the peculiar mixture of hope and dread that marks the weeks before new national or international test results come out. In recent years, the results of assessments have tended to confirm that dread — gains have leveled off in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading, for example, and the United States’ standing has slipped in some international assessments.
How reassuring, then, to see hope prevail as the National Assessment Governing Board releases the results of NAEP’s 2018 Technology and Engineering Literacy Assessment, which assessed eighth-graders nationwide. States’ decision to wrap technology and engineering into their science standards may well be paying off.
On Tuesday, the board reported that scores rose a statistically significant two points between 2014 and 2018. The share of students scoring at or above the proficient mark rose from 43 to 46 percent. Students saw gains in all content and practice areas.
Scores rose significantly for white, black and Asian students; students who qualified for free or subsidized lunch; and girls. In fact, girls widened their lead over boys from two to five points, confirming a major headline from the 2014 assessment: Girls outperform boys in engineering and technology.
State policies may be causing the gains. Yes, researchers urge us to tread lightly when we speculate why test scores rise or fall, but data from the assessment do nourish a plausible theory: Schools are spending more time on engineering and technology.
The share of students who reported taking at least one course in technology or engineering increased from 52 to 57 percent between 2014 and 2018. Students were also more likely to report doing the kinds of things in school that engineers and technology professionals do in their jobs. For example, the share who reported “figuring out why something is not working in order to fix it” at least three times in their schools rose from 42 to 50 percent. In 2018, 41 percent said that, on at least three occasions, they “built or tested a model” in school to see if it solved a problem — up from 37 percent four years earlier. All these changes are statistically significant.
Intriguing as they are, these data leave important questions unanswered. Why, for example, did girls surge ahead, while boys remained mostly flat? Why didn’t Hispanic students make significant gains? Is the quality of instruction in technology and engineering improving?
The results reveal other challenges that may temper enthusiasm. Even after recent gains, less than half of U.S. eighth-graders are proficient in technology and engineering. Students of color and those whose family income qualifies them for the National School Lunch Program lag far behind their peers, as do students learning English and those with disabilities. And scores of the lowest-performing students haven’t budged since 2014. States still have a lot of work to do.
Still, the results do give us cause for optimism. In the past five years, states took a gamble when they adopted science standards that embrace technology and engineering: It is no small matter to create new curricula, train teachers in new content and teaching methods, and design state tests that address the new knowledge and skills.
Insofar as it comes at all, improvement is often slow and uneven. So far, though, many signs are pointing in the right direction.