STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers are equally appealing to female and male students, but the achievement gap between the two groups continues, with females again trailing males in terms of readiness for college STEM coursework, according to ACT’s newly released report, “STEM Education in the U.S.: Where We Are and What We Can Do.”

“Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but they are woefully underrepresented in STEM careers,” said Suzana Delanghe, ACT chief commercial officer. “Our report references promising practices designed to encourage all students to pursue STEM education and careers, but those practices are not enough. We must accelerate efforts to engage and prepare girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM when they graduate from high school.”

ACT’s fifth and latest edition of its annual STEM report focuses on the more than 2 million students in the 2017 U.S. high school graduating class – 60 percent of all the nation’s graduates – who took the ACT® test.

The ACT is the only college readiness exam in the U.S. with a full science test and also the only one that reports a STEM score and a STEM college readiness benchmark score indicating students’ readiness to succeed in college courses such as calculus, biology, chemistry and physics, which are typically required for a college STEM-related major. 

The findings indicate nearly equal interest in STEM exists among females and males overall (47 percent of females versus 50 percent of males).

A strong disparity remains between the two groups, however, in overall readiness for STEM courses: Just 18 percent of females – compared to 24 percent of males – met the STEM benchmark.

Among students who have an interest in STEM, the gap is even larger: 22 percent of female students met the STEM benchmark, compared to 31 percent of males. In fact, females interested in STEM were less likely than males overall to meet or surpass the benchmark (22 percent vs. 24 percent).

“Clearly we have a lot of work to do” said Delanghe. “Encouraging young women to consider pursuing technically challenging careers must be on the top of educators’ ‘to do’ lists.”

The ACT STEM score is based on combined results from the ACT math and science tests. Students who meet or surpass an ACT STEM score of 26 – the STEM benchmark score – have a strong (75 percent) probability of earning a grade of C or higher in first-year college STEM courses. They also are more likely than those who don’t to earn good grades, persist in a college STEM major and earn a STEM-related bachelor’s degree.

As noted in the report, opportunities for future careers in STEM fields are plentiful. The number of jobs in U.S. STEM occupations grew by 10.5 percent from May 2009-15 – more than twice the growth rate of non-STEM occupations. This trend is expected to continue, with the U.S. projecting that computer occupations alone will create nearly 500,000 new jobs between 2014 and 2024.

“STEM occupations represent an excellent career path for our young people,” said Delanghe. “Policymakers have the ability to do more to keep more students on the STEM career path and keep America’s workforce competitive.”

ACT makes several policy recommendations in the report to help improve STEM readiness:

• Ensure state graduation requirements emphasize the importance of rigorous science and math courses for all students.

• Pay teachers more. The US ranks 22nd out of 27 countries in average earnings for teachers.

• Establish a loan forgiveness program for STEM teachers.

• Provide equitable access to both high-quality math and science courses and real-world work experiences for all students via dual enrollment programs.

To learn more about ACT and its recent report, visit its Web site online at www.act.org.