- Richard J. Murnane
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Richard J. Murnane
Preparing K-12 students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is an ongoing challenge confronting state policymakers. We examine the implementation of a science graduation testing requirement for high-school students in Massachusetts, beginning with the graduating class of 2010. We find that the design of the new requirement was quite complicated, reflecting the state’s previous experiences with test-based accountability, a broad consensus on policy goals among key stakeholders, and the desire to afford flexibility to local schools and districts. The consequences for both students and schools, while largely consistent with the goals of increasing students’ skills and interest in STEM fields, were in many cases unexpected. We find large differences by demographic subgroup in the probabilities of passing the first science exam and of succeeding on retest, even when conditioning on previous test-score performance. Our results also show impacts of science exit-exam performance for students scoring near the passing threshold, particularly on the high-school graduation rates of females and on college outcomes for higher-income students. These findings demonstrate the importance of equity considerations in designing and evaluating ambitious new policy initiatives.
Many states use high-school exit examinations to assess students’ career and college readiness in core subjects. We find meaningful consequences of barely passing the mathematics examination in Massachusetts, as opposed to just failing it. However, these impacts operate at different educational attainment margins for low-income and higher-income students. As in previous work, we find that barely passing increases the probability of graduating from high school for low-income (particularly urban low-income) students, but not for higher-income students. However, this pattern is reversed for 4-year college graduation. For higher-income students only, just passing the examination increases the probability of completing a 4-year college degree by 2.1 percentage points, a sizable effect given that only 13% of these students near the cutoff graduate.
A survey targeting education researchers conducted in November, 2020 provides both short- and longer-term predictions of how much achievement gaps between low- and high-income students in U.S elementary schools will change as a result of COVID-related disruptions to schooling and family life. Relative to a pre-COVID achievement gap of 1.00 SD, respondents’ median forecasts for increases in achievement gaps in elementary school by spring, 2021 were very large – from 1.00 to 1.30 and 1.25 SD, respectively, for math and reading. Researchers forecast only small reductions in gaps between spring 2021 and 2022. Although forecasts were heterogeneous, almost all respondents predicted that gaps would grow during the pandemic and would not return to pre-pandemic levels in the following school year. We discuss some implications of these predictions for strategies to reduce learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic as well as the mental models researchers appear to employ in making their predictions.