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Every Student Can’t Succeed If Every Voice is Not Heard: Equity Perspectives From STEM Educators

by Jamaal Young, Mary M. Capraro, Robert M. Capraro & Marti Cason - 2018

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides numerous provisions to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These provisions do not necessarily address persistent achievement and opportunity gaps. We contend that if states, districts, and local schools capitalize on the autonomy provided in the ESSA, access, equity, and achievement in STEM can be attainable to traditionally underserved populations of learners. The purpose of this article is to review the enumerated provisions pertinent to STEM and, based on these provisions, present recommendations to support access, equity, and achievement in STEM content areas. Our review indicates that the ESSA presents provisions in five areas related to STEM education: (1) standards, (2) assessments, (3) accountability, (4) teacher effectiveness, and (5) well-rounded education. Using these five areas as an organizational framework, we provide recommendations to support enduring challenges related to equity, access, and achievement in STEM education. These recommendations are based on current high-yield practices used to support equity, access, and achievement in STEM content.

Success for all is touted as the universal mantra of effective educational programs. However, educational policy has yet to foster this ideal into reality. Increasing access, equity, and achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a national concern. Reports project that more than 115,000 STEM jobs are expected to exist by 2018 (Contrera, 2013). Developing the U.S. STEM workforce is a national priority for policy makers and practitioners (Heilbronner, 2011). Unlike other educational platforms, STEM initiatives have garnered the attention of U.S. officials, policy makers, and educators across the gamut. This concerted effort has led to numerous specialized STEM schools, after-school programs, summer camps, classroom initiatives, and university partnerships to support the “STEM for All” movement (Hutton & VandenBurg, 2011). Despite these efforts, access, equity, and achievement in STEM remain elusive.

Success in STEM is a national concern. Many efforts and resources allocated to support STEM success are federally mandated and equity focused. The STEM workforce and pipeline currently fail to include representative populations of learners who are traditionally underserved in U.S. public schools. According to Schneider, Judy, and Mazuca (2012), the proportion of underrepresented students of color in science and engineering would need to triple to match their proportions in the U.S. population. Although many mandates have sought to address this and other representational concerns, few have received overwhelming bipartisan support. On December 10, 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law.

This law represents a new approach to accountability that affords states and local communities the ability to tailor educational programs to meet their unique needs. This aspect of the legislation is appealing but must be tempered to ensure that appropriate attention is placed on groups of traditionally marginalized learners. The ESSA reflects a new approach to student success and educational accountability. However, the question remains as to whether this initiative will adequately address persistent achievement and opportunity gaps. The purpose of this article is to propose recommendations, based on equity-focused research, that are supported by the provisions presented in the ESSA. This discussion is divided into three sections: (1) current diversity and equity challenges related to STEM, (2) review of pertinent ESSA STEM provisions, and (3) recommendations based on the policies presented in the ESSA.


Diversifying STEM education has benefits that are political, profitable, and practical. From a political standpoint, global competitiveness is a primary concern. World leaders understand that many of tomorrow’s problems will be solved in today’s classrooms. For example, numerous reports indicate a strong relationship between global leadership and K–12 STEM education that adequately prepares the next generation’s scientists and innovators (Holdren, Lander, & Varmus, 2010). Thus, the hunt to identify the best and brightest STEM talent remains, but increased attention has been placed on ingenuity (Demetriou & Christou, 2015). Diverse STEM professionals can provide a fresh perspective to the nation’s STEM challenges based on their unique experiences and backgrounds. Specifically, increasing STEM recruitment and retention efforts to support girls and underrepresented students of color can strengthen the workforce by bringing a broader range of ideas, experiences, and perspectives that are essential to U.S. scientific excellence (Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin, 2005; Young, & Young, 2017). Businesses are constantly seeking better prepared employees from traditionally marginalized populations to meet an increasing demand for digital resources and technological products across the world.

Many employers are now seeking diverse applicants with unique cultural backgrounds and experiences to pose culturally relevant problems and guide companies into effective and lucrative solutions. Unfortunately, U.S. colleges and universities consistently fail to meet the demand for STEM professionals. Employment statistics suggest that 40% of students majoring in STEM complete the necessary coursework; this accounts for only 300,000 STEM graduates per year, whereas projections indicate workforce demand is closer to 1 million (Holdren & Lander, 2012). Therefore, increasing the number of qualified STEM professionals has a direct economic impact on our nation.

Finally, from a practical perspective, it is more efficient to train, hire, and retire homegrown talent. This, however, does not come without a unique set of challenges. The next generation of STEM learners relies on science and technology every day in smartphones, computers, televisions, medicines, and everyday products, while unaware of the many connections to mathematics and science (National Research Council [NRC], 2012). Leveraging these experiences and interactions is one way to develop STEM interest. As Archer and colleagues (2010) suggested, young students often report that science is fun and interesting, but this interest could be an insufficient motivation to pursue a career in STEM. If the United States could successfully cultivate domestic STEM professionals, the potential gains in all STEM-related sectors would be limitless.

Nonetheless, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that the commodification of U.S. citizens, especially those from traditionally marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds, does present several ethical and practical concerns. For instance, Martin (2012) argued that the objectives of mathematics education for Black students are consistently underdeveloped and increasingly emphasize their commodification as potential participants in advanced mathematics coursework or their ability to support the nation’s STEM needs. However, as the argument presented earlier indicates, STEM success for all remains an established policy concern with a multitude of political, financial, and public support. Despite this support, efforts to increase access, equity, and achievement in STEM consistently fall short.

The current U.S. population statistics suggest that the U.S. is a majority-minority nation. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that White students now represent less than 50% of the public school student population, indicating that students of color now represent the largest proportion of students in public schools (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2017). This suggests that the U.S. student population is more racially diverse than ever before. Likewise, the divergence of thought and opinion in our nation reflects a multitude of diversity in culture and lifestyle preferences. Historically, issues of equity and diversity in educational literature have been dominated by gender equity and racial/ethnic diversity. Because these two areas are the most prevalent in the literature, we provide a brief examination of the major STEM workforce diversification challenges in these two areas. In the next two sections, we examine some of the major equity and diversity concerns related to the gender and racial diversification of the STEM workforce.


Gender diversity in STEM has received tremendous support because of the long-standing underrepresentation of women as STEM professionals. However, stereotypes and gender-norming behaviors and attitudes remain a challenge related to gender diversity in STEM professions. Interest, attitudes, and content-specific identities are developed through interactions with our socializing agents. These interactions have substantial implications for the STEM identity and achievement of girls of color (Young, Young, & Capraro, 2017). Likewise, Gunderson, Ramirez, Levine, and Beilock (2011) concluded that parents’ and teachers’ gender-related content attitudes—including their stereotypes and anxieties—can transfer to girls and play a critical role in girls’ development of STEM content attitudes and interests. These influences have enduring effects that are well documented in the literature.

According to McGrayne (2005), women represent a population of learners historically discouraged from pursuing STEM fields because of gender bias perpetuated within the STEM culture and institutionalized sexism within K–12 and higher education. For instance, some within the STEM community contend that female students lack mathematics and science ability, while others suggest that women should prioritize family over career roles (Leaper & Brown, 2008). These messages are prevalent and systemic in STEM environments. Thus, many girls perceive STEM as incompatible with female gender roles, as alienating, and as inconsistent with female gender image expectations (Brickhouse, Lowery, & Schultz, 2000). The effects of these barriers and perceptions are social and psychological. For example, Shapiro and Williams (2012) posited that stereotypes and other gender-related mathematics attitudes could undermine female student interest and performance in STEM domains, even for women with positive mathematics attitudes. These concerns pose new challenges for researchers and educators seeking to increase access, equity, and achievement in STEM.

Gender parity in access, achievement, and status remains a concern for educational researchers and policy makers despite incremental progress. This is evident in the increases in participation and programs designed to stimulate interest and achievement for girls early in the STEM pipeline. Numerous college and university camps and programs have been designed to support girls interested in STEM. Some of the notable programs include California Girls in STEM (CalGirlS), COMPUGIRLS, Eureka!, and CURIE Academy. These efforts are gaining momentum; however, national data indicate that women represent approximately 56% of college students but only 36% of college students majoring in STEM (NCES, 2017). Researchers provide several probable explanations for this trend. First, many girls lose interest in STEM early in their academic careers, despite exhibiting promising mathematics and science capabilities. Girls often make a choice not to pursue STEM early in the middle grades, often before they comprehend the implications of their choices (American Association of University Women, 2010). Hence, the STEM pipeline is often characterized as “leaky.” This characterization is due in part to the exodus of girls and women who could otherwise become the next generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers (Dasgupta, 2011). Additionally, gender achievement gaps remain a concern but are increasingly becoming less prevalent.

Gender achievement gaps in science and math performance are closing, but gaps in STEM persistence remain large (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014). The results of several comparative analyses indicate that gender achievement parity is imminent (Brotman & Moore 2008; Hyde, Lindberg, Linn, Ellis, & Williams, 2008; Knezek, Christensen, & Tyler-Wood, 2011). Data suggest that the remaining differences may be task specific. Liu (2008) found that girls have better mathematics grades, but boys perform better on mathematics exams. These results indicate that the mathematics and science achievement of girls has improved and, in some circumstances, exceeds the performance of their male counterparts. However, these achievement trends do not increase the presence of girls in advanced mathematics or science courses and, subsequently, STEM professions. 

The underrepresentation of women becomes larger at higher levels of education (Ceci, Williams, & Barnett, 2009). For example, women received 37.7%, 20.3%, and 21.3% of PhDs awarded by U.S. colleges and universities in 2009 within chemistry, physics, and engineering, respectively (Snyder, Dillow, & Hoffman, 2009). Therefore, the most prestigious, powerful, and lucrative STEM positions remain reserved for male STEM professionals. There appears to be a glass ceiling limiting the number of women given access to the highest levels of STEM professions. As the nation seeks to diversify its STEM workforce, it is important to consider the gender parity at the highest and most elite academic levels within STEM because this is where the challenges remain most prevalent.


Access to STEM education and professions has improved for women and girls. However, improvements for minoritized ethnic groups have been less noteworthy. Some argue that the lack of STEM professionals from minoritized ethnic groups is a function of a lack of academically qualified workers from these groups. In this section, we examine the long-standing achievement gaps and their effects on participation from ethnically diverse student populations.

According to Krull (2014), over the last 38 years, data from the National Association for Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate limited to no change in rates of achievement for Black and Latino/a children. The literature on racial diversity has a well-documented past that consistently accounts and recounts the statistically significant achievement gaps between non-Asian students of color and their White counterparts. Data from the NAEP provide decades of evidence that enumerates the magnitude and prevalence of the mathematics and science achievement gap. Historically, the NAEP has operationalized achievement gaps as the differences in performance between two demographic groups that are statistically significantly different or larger than the margin of error (Bohrnstedt, Kitmitto, Ogut, Sherman, & Chan, 2015). Statistically significant differences between particular populations of students are prevalent and persistent over time. For instance, according to NAEP data, by eighth grade, 91% of Black and 87% of Latino/a students were not proficient in mathematics in 2006, compared with 53% of Asian American students and 63% of White students who were not proficient (Haycock, 2006). These trends are enduring; data from the most recent results of the mathematics and science NAEP suggest that these gaps remain.

Results from the 2015 fourth-grade mathematics NAEP show a 24-point difference between White and Black students and an 18-point difference between White and Latino/a students. These gaps remain and, in most cases, are larger in the upper middle grades and high school performance. For example, data from the 2015 eighth-grade mathematics NAEP indicate a 32-point difference between White and Black students and a 22-point difference between White and Latino/a students. Thus, the mathematics achievement gaps are 8 points and 4 points larger in eighth grade for Black and Latino/a students, respectively. Likewise, the results from the 2015 fourth-grade science assessment indicate a 33-point difference between White and Black student scores and a 27-point difference between White and Latino/a student scores. Additionally, the gaps remain in eighth grade. However, they decrease by 4 points for Latino/a students and increase by 1 point for Black students. These documented gaps in ability or aptitude are more reflective of gaps in access, preparation, and resources.

Many factors contribute to gaps in achievement. One of the most salient policy-related factors is the absence of important opportunities to learn. Woolley, Strutchens, Gilbert, and Martin (2010) contended that achievement gaps are more or less gaps in opportunities to learn. Opportunities to learn represent the access and quality of instructional resources that support classroom teaching and learning. These typically include access to science and mathematics programs, access to qualified teachers, access to resources, and access to classroom opportunities (Oakes, 1990). These factors influence teacher effectiveness, rigor of the curriculum, student engagement in academic tasks, and teacher expectations for students (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Delpit, 2012). A by-product of these “opportunity gaps” is a less prepared population of U.S. citizens. For example, survey results from the Civil Rights Data Collection provided by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights show that 50% of U.S. high schools do not offer calculus, and 27% do not offer physics (Smith, 2016). Exacerbating matters, these data also show that between 10% and 25% of high schools lack more than one of the core STEM courses in the recommended sequence of high school math and science education (i.e., algebra I and II, geometry, biology, or chemistry). Hence, despite possible interest in STEM careers, many U.S. students lack the academic skills to earn degrees necessary for employment in STEM professions.

According to the Business-Higher Education Forum (2011), minoritized youth are more likely to be STEM-interested but not STEM content proficient. These students have exhibited an interest in STEM professions but have historically underperformed in STEM content areas. Success in STEM requires an early commitment to advanced mathematics and science. Advanced Placement (AP) mathematics and science courses, when available, are often considered a prerequisite to the pursuit of a STEM major in college (Lichtenberger & George-Jackson, 2013). Compounding this problem is a substantial disparity in AP course offerings in high schools serving larger proportions of ethnically diverse students (Eisenhart et al., 2015; Kanno & Kangas, 2014). Taking these courses has several benefits for underrepresented students of color.

First, participation in AP courses prevents the mathematics and science achievement gaps from growing in postsecondary settings. Second, participation in advanced mathematics and science helps students to develop STEM identity. STEM identity is one’s ability to see himself or herself as a STEM person. Perceived college readiness in mathematics and science influences students’ choice of major (Millar, 2010). Therefore, success in advanced courses in mathematics and science helps to develop a solid STEM identity in students of color (Young, Ero-Tolliver, Young, & Ford, 2017). This information is crucial for postsecondary success, but studies indicate that minoritized students and students experiencing poverty disproportionally lack access to information about the courses necessary for acceptance into a particular major at different colleges and universities (Schneider et al., 2012). This lack of information widens achievement gaps and prevents interested U.S. citizens from fulfilling their career paths in STEM. Diversifying the STEM pipeline requires precise provisions to support gender equity and racial/ethnic diversity. In the sections that follow, we outline the STEM education-related provisions.


The provisions provided in the ESSA extend, replace, and enhance the provisions provided in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Many of these changes have explicit ramifications for STEM education. Therefore, in the discussion that follows, we identify provisions of the ESSA that are most pertinent to the preparation of a more diverse STEM workforce. Through this process, we will subsequently provide recommendations to address the challenges of access, equity, and achievement in STEM education. Specifically, we will address provisions in five areas: (1) standards, (2) assessments, (3) accountability, (4) teacher effectiveness, and (5) well-rounded education.

As presented in Figure 1, states are required to set standards in reading, science, and mathematics with three levels of achievement. For this discussion, we will focus on mathematics and science standards. One important feature of the ESSA related to this adoption is STEM interest, and access is the required alignment to college and career readiness standards. This requirement can be leveraged to facilitate the preparation of a more diverse STEM student population if the alignment is rigorous and purposeful.

Figure 1. ESSA STEM-Related Provisions and Requirements for Academic Standards





States must adopt with three levels of achievement standards in



and science.


Standards must be aligned to college and career entrance

standards set by states’ higher education system.


Allows states to use validated standards-setting process to

develop alternative academic achievement standards for students with the most significant cognitive challenges.

The three-level achievement structure can provide an academic indicator to help identify and correct mathematics and science challenges in public schools.

The required alignment to college and career readiness standards can be leveraged to provide a conduit for more diverse STEM professionals.

Additionally, STEM-related career and technical fields are often overlooked in discussions related to STEM professions, but under ESSA, these careers may receive more attention.

Maintains high standards for all students but allows states to provide for students who are the most cognitively challenged.

Achievement gaps remain a major consideration for school districts across the nation. The assessment provisions outlined in the ESSA have the potential to support creative assessment protocols that support the achievement of diverse learners in STEM content areas. A list of these provisions and their implications for equity and access in STEM are presented in Figure 2. Assessment scheduling should be aligned to establish pedagogical practices and reflect a growth-oriented approach to the teaching and learning process. The decision to use one or multiple assessments should be data driven and aligned to trends in specific content areas. For example, in biology, it may be more feasible to use multiple assessments because of the curriculum schedule. However, in algebra, this may not be feasible because significantly more of the content builds directly on the previous topics.

Figure 2. ESSA STEM-Related Provisions and Requirements for Assessments





Annual assessment structure is similar to NCLB with the following provisions:

States can administer one annual assessment or multiple assessments to generate a cumulative summative score.

 States can allow districts to use other exams (SAT, ACT, etc.) in high school, with permission.

Limits the aggregate amount of time schools can spend on assessments for each grade.

States must assess 95% of all students, but states can develop their laws governing “opt-outs” and require parents to be notified regarding children’s participation right in assessments.


Districts can phase in English language learners’ (ELLs’) assessment scores for accountability purposes.

States have the flexibility to include a formative assessment structure to support growth in mathematics and science content.

Districts should consider Advanced Placement STEM content exams as an alternative to state assessments or at least participation as an additional measure.

Time previously spent on assessments should be used for enrichment activities, such as field trips or project-based learning activities.

STEM educational professionals should help states develop “opt-outs” that do not reduce participation from traditionally underserved populations for learners.

The performance of ELLs should be placed on a reasonable phase-in schedule to promote sustained support and improvement in their mathematics and science proficiency.

Major changes and extensions of policies were made regarding accountability in the ESSA. These changes and new provisions are presented in Figure 3. The major change was the elimination of adequate yearly progress (AYP). The annual report card, however, remains, with additional reporting requirements. The data presented in the annual report card have a multitude of implications for STEM education and diverse learners. One very pertinent provision is the inclusion of additional academic indicators.

Figure 3. ESSA STEM-Related Provisions and Requirements for Accountability






Eliminates 100% proficiency requirement.


Eliminates AYP but requires states to develop an accountability system.


Requires annual report card that includes:

Disaggregated student data

Teacher qualifications (emergency certificates and provisional status)

Student participation rates, which include the number of students taking an alternative exam

Graduation rates

Performance of English language learners

Pertinent data related to Civil Rights Data Collection survey

NAEP results

Student performance on other academic indicators

Federal, state, and local expenditures per student

Postsecondary enrollment

Create rigorous yet attainable mathematics and science performance goals for each subgroup based on empirical research and growth models.

Expand state assessments to include annual measurements of student performance in science.

Consider STEM interest as a possible indicator of school quality or student success.

When differentiating schools with subgroup underperformance, consider STEM literature on student demographic composition and opportunities to learn.

Student data should be disaggregated to examine intersections of race and gender, particularly in the areas of mathematics and science.

The quantity and quality of teacher preparation in mathematics and science should be considered in STEM areas for schools serving large populations of culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Students of color are overrepresented in special education. Thus it is important that states and districts examine racial participation trends and alternative exam participation.

NAEP results are a good indicator of state- and district-level achievement gap trends and should be reviewed in STEM content areas.

STEM out-of-school-time activities, such as after-school programs and camps, should be considered other academic indicators.

Per-pupil expenditures should be considered explicitly at underperforming campuses.

Postsecondary enrollment in STEM majors could serve as an additional academic indicator.

Teachers deliver mathematics and science content that inspires the next generation of professionals to pursue STEM careers. Yet, data consistently indicate that many teachers are less than adequately effective in reaching and teaching diverse STEM learners. The ESSA eliminated the highly qualified teacher requirement, which specified the number of earned credits teachers needed in specific content to teach that particular content area in schools. Now states are required to provide assurances that classroom teachers meet the standards for certification and licensure. This shift in policy should, it is hoped, increase the requirements for alternative certifications. Aside from replacing highly qualified with effective, the ESSA is making new provisions for more specialized and targeted professional development to support teacher effectiveness. A list of these provisions is provided in Figure 4.

Figure 4. ESSA STEM-Related Provisions and Requirements for Teacher Effectiveness





Eliminates highly qualified teacher requirements but requires the state to provide assurances that all teachers and paraprofessionals meet state certification and licensure requirements.


Maintains equal distribution requirement but replaces “unqualified” with “ineffective.”


Specifies that professional development is personalized, continuous, job centered, equally accessible, connected to broad school goals, collaborative, developed with educator input, and evaluated regularly. Replaces scientifically based with evidence based. Redistributes the Title II formula to 20% based on school-age population and 80% based on the population living in poverty.


Similar to NCLB, but if Title II funds are used to create or change school district evaluation systems, they must be based somewhat on student achievement and multiple measures.

Data indicate that many underrepresented populations of students lack effective teachers in STEM content areas. Thus it is imperative that states go beyond assurances and monitor students’ performance in all classes.

Professional development is essential to effective and relevant STEM teaching and learning. However, it must be tailored and designed to meet school goals and with a target population of learners and teachers in mind.

Teacher evaluations in STEM content areas should include student achievement in content that is aligned to the student’s current course, not prerequisite content. Furthermore, student growth, STEM interest, and attendance should also be considered as additional evaluation measures.


The next generation of professionals must be socially conscious, creative, and highly intelligent. Therefore, the ESSA requires districts to designate grant funds to support nonacademic tasks that help to develop the whole child. Additionally, the provisions eliminate grants for STEM activities specifically. This change does affect how STEM education resources are allocated, but the increased focus on early childhood and technology-enhanced learning can have a substantial influence on the STEM education landscape if leveraged appropriately. In the next section, we present some recommendations based on high-yield strategies that could be implemented within the provisions outlined in the ESSA to support access, equity, and achievement in STEM.


High-yield strategies are practices that are deemed effective based on empirical and practical evidence. For the remaining discussion, we focus on high-yield strategies to support access, equity, and achievement in STEM education. The recommendations presented in this section are based on evidence that was synthesized across multiple quantitative and qualitative studies. Additionally, these recommendations are reflective of national initiatives that were evidence based and effective as determined by the results of program evaluations and other pertinent literature. Finally, the recommended high-yield strategies are aligned to the five ESSA provision areas presented in the previous section.


STEM content standards should be strategically aligned with the college and career readiness standards across junior colleges and major universities in each state. Two major policy streams in U.S. K–12 education have gained increased empirical attention: standards/accountability and teacher quality reforms (Polikoff & Porter, 2014). Therefore, if the ESSA is to effectively support the matriculation of girls and minoritized youth through the STEM pipeline, the relationship between standards, teaching, and subsequent learning must be considered. Standards must be clear, consistent, and crosscutting to provide a fluid conduit in order to foster equitable access to STEM achievement for students from traditionally underserved populations. Businesses, states, schools, and universities must forge more transparent partnerships that enable open dialogue because increased communication should improve access to and equity in STEM professions. It is imperative that junior colleges are adequately surveyed because they serve a large population of high school graduates who seek to enter technical fields. From an equity and access standpoint, this is crucial because junior college enrollment trends suggest that 48% of students at two-year postsecondary institutions are non-White students (McFarland et al., 2017). Thus, these partnerships are essential to the alignment of STEM content objectives and learning outcomes with the knowledge and skills diverse learners need to be successful in college and careers.


AP exams should be considered in addition to college entrance exams as plausible alternative assessments. Access to AP courses remains a concern for diversifying the STEM workforce. Assessments provide valuable information for students, parents, teachers, administrators, districts, and states. When used effectively, assessments can guide instruction, policy, and practices to support student success. However, when students do not have access to these exams, lack an incentive to complete these exams, or, at worst, remain unprepared, then these data will remain unavailable to support student learning and subsequent success. Data indicate that STEM-interested students lack access to AP STEM coursework. According to the College Board (2017), only 1% of U.S. schools offer AP exams. This essentially means that 99% of U.S. high school students do not have access to AP coursework. Other data assert that schools serving students experiencing poverty or large populations of culturally diverse students are less likely to offer AP courses (Theokas & Saaris, 2013). The ESSA provides new flexibility in the assessment process that should be used by states to develop tailored assessment protocols that support all students and, more specifically, that address the needs of students suffering from enduring opportunity gaps. The flexibility in testing requirements in the ESSA is one way to address this challenge. Because the ESSA provides districts an opportunity to use alternative assessments, AP exams could become more accessible to traditionally underserved populations of learners. If AP exams were offered as an option for students to take instead of state-designed standardized testing, a more diverse population of learners may gain access to these opportunities.

Developmental assessment requirements should not undermine efforts to assess STEM content proficiency in all students. Language proficiency is an important consideration as our nation becomes more linguistically diverse. Developing academic and social language skills is an arduous task that requires dual-language learners to work twice as hard as their peers. Despite these challenges, English language learners (ELLs) must be continually assessed in mathematics and science to prevent achievement gaps from widening. Similarly, given the historic overrepresentation of Black and Latino/a students in special education, all alternative exams and exemptions or exclusions should be rigorously screened and monitored. Students with language and development challenges must be encouraged to engage in rigorous mathematics and science courses as a means to develop their academic resilience. Unfortunately, this cannot be accomplished if these students are constantly exempted from exams and given less academically demanding alternatives.

Academic resilience is recognized as an important factor in the success of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. For many students, resilience is a way to survive despite their environmental or developmental circumstance. One common operational definition of academic resilience is “the heightened likelihood of educational success despite adversities brought about by environmental conditions and experiences” (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997, p. 4). CLD students are exposed to conditions, experiences, and challenges that can adversely affect their academic performance in many situations. Researchers posit that minoritized youth attending inner-city schools and dual-language students experiencing poverty are more likely to experience increased academic challenges in the public school system (Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2009). A substantial number of Black and Latino/a youth experience multiple academic risk factors. Developing academic resilience is one established approach to addressing these challenges. Reducing, eliminating, or alternating the number and quality of assessments that students must complete undermines the development of academic resilience and must be implemented only when necessary and with caution.


Teacher evaluations should be based on student subgroup performance compared against the state academic standard, rather than student-to-student comparative frameworks. Research suggests that standards are often overshadowed by the perpetual preoccupation with “gap gazing.” Essentially, the achievement standards are often replaced by between-group comparative analyses that often fail to support the academic needs of students of color. These data practices form the basis of the achievement gap literature, which has yet to provide practices that consistently close achievement gaps. Current assessment practices lack a focus on the academic achievement profiles of student subgroups. Rather, many practices often utilize White students as a “norm reference” instead of using established achievement and proficiency standards. An achievement profiles approach would allow districts to develop prescriptive interventions that can guide content-based instructional practices tailored to close “knowledge gaps” and reduce the need to investigate “achievement gaps.”

Much of the available research using between-group designs involves Black or Latino/a students and White students, or male and female students. One major limitation of ethnic or gender comparative designs, however, is that when group differences are found, investigators are left to speculate on the cause of those differences (Dotterer, Lowe, & McHale, 2014). These activities perpetuate the trend of gap gazing and fail to yield information that it is practically significant for classroom use. Homogeneous within-group standard-focused evaluations of performance could allow districts to identify gaps in knowledge attained and then identify possible missing opportunities to learn that could fill these gaps. Therefore, we suggest that standards be interpreted from a growth rather than a group comparison perspective.

STEM career interest and high school graduate STEM major declarations should be considered plausible additional academic indicators. Second, STEM career interest would be an excellent academic indicator to consider, especially in specialized magnet and STEM schools. STEM interest represents a student’s inclination toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (Sahin, 2013). Correlations between classroom interactions and career interest are well documented in the STEM literature (Kuechler, McLeod, & Simkin, 2009). Hence, using student STEM career interest as an additional academic indicator is based on evidence from the field. The sustainability of the effects of classroom interactions on students’ long-term interest in STEM could be substantiated through student college major declarations. As part of the required report card, schools should report postsecondary enrollment in STEM majors as an additional academic indicator. STEM-interested students who subsequently declare a STEM field as a college major also may provide further credence to the inclusion of STEM-specific college and career readiness standards within the school curriculum early and often.


Special attention should be placed on the data provided as assurances of teacher effectiveness in STEM content areas given the longstanding underperformance of students in mathematics and science. Regarding teachers, STEM content area specialists should receive an additional qualification review and screening process in underperforming schools or schools serving large populations of students of color. This would help to increase student access to high-quality instruction and other opportunities to learn. Opportunities to learn are important considerations in the fight for STEM equity, access, and success. Schmidt and Maier (2009) contended that opportunities to learn are fundamental to the instructional process: “what students learn in school is related to what is taught in school” (p. 541). Therefore, access to effective teachers and first-class instruction is one of the most consistent affordances cited as a missed opportunity to learn for traditionally marginalized populations of learners. When students receive effective instruction on rigorous topics, they learn more; in contrast, spending excess time on less advanced content impedes student growth (Desimone, Smith, & Phillips, 2013). The provisions of the ESSA have specific implications to support access to effective instruction in advanced STEM content areas. Data consistently suggest that schools serving large populations of students of color tend to have less qualified teachers, defined by teaching experience, caliber of preparation, standardized test scores, and subject matter knowledge (Heck & Mahoe, 2010; Reeves, 2012). As the “highly qualified” requirements are phased out, it is important that districts increase rather than decrease the qualifications for all teachers, particularly STEM content area specialists teaching large populations of students of color.

STEM content area professional development should be prioritized based on trends in student achievement nationally. Professional development efforts should be designed to meet the specifications as outlined in the ESSA, with particular interest placed on STEM content areas with the largest underachievement for girls and students of color. These efforts should take into account the unique levels of diversity and subgroups as outlined in the ESSA and then use evidence-based practices designed and tailored to address acute challenges of districts and schools. According to Desimone (2011), the core features of effective professional development are content focus, active learning, coherence, duration, and collective participation. Under the provisions and requirements of the ESSA, districts have the autonomy to place focused attention where it is necessary, support hands-on educational experiences, create integrated instruction, develop an effective implementation schedule, and solicit teacher input to sustain the effects of professional development activities.


STEM content specialists must embrace the opportunity to develop STEM identity by teaching the “whole” child. The well-rounded education provisions eliminate direct STEM funding, however, by requiring nonacademic and technology-enhanced activities, these provisions are better suited to meeting the needs of girls and students of color. Figure 5 presents a full description of ESSA STEM provisions related to a well-rounded education. Many of the challenges facing girls and students of color affect their STEM content knowledge indirectly. Thus, many of the barriers to success may be social, emotional, or health related. STEM-interested students, particularly adolescent students of color, need instruction that helps to improve and promote their STEM identity or ability to see themselves as a STEM person.

Figure 5. ESSA STEM-Related Provisions and Requirements for Well-Rounded Education





Eliminates individual programs in favor of a block grant that provides funding by a formula requiring at least one academic activity, one nonacademic activity, and at least one technology-related activity. Additional provisions are provided for:

Early childhood programs

21st Century Community Centers (after-school programs)

Increased commitment to student health and safety through prevention programs


Eliminates core content focus and increases investment in well-rounded education and programs to support student health/safety.

The elimination of STEM-specific grant funding could negatively affect access and equity in STEM education.

The inclusion of early childhood programs is a possible means to foster early access to STEM education for traditionally underserved populations.

The technology activity requirement can help to close digital divides between students of color and students experiencing poverty.

A cultural discontinuity often exists between the home and school that can promote disengagement and underachievement (Cholewa & West-Olatunji, 2008). Thus, the key to this process is the “efficient” and “effective” teaching of authentic STEM tasks that leverages cultural funds of knowledge to create a bridge between mathematics and science content and the experiential knowledge of minoritized students. To leverage cultural funds of knowledge, teachers must situate their praxis in the cognitive, emotional, personal, and social experiences of students. By adding provisions to support the whole child, the ESSA is better aligned to the successful practices of exemplary programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Ron Clark Academy, which routinely profess to teach the whole child. Additionally, STEM education should be affirmed early and often—thus, the inclusion of additional provisions to support funding for early childhood programs is a promising shift for increasing early interest and proficiency in STEM content.


The ESSA has the potential to transform historical trends in access, equity, and achievement within the STEM content areas. Although the policies presented in the document eliminate some of the features of NCLB that favor STEM content areas, the legislation as a whole provides more allowances to individual states, districts, and communities to create tailored learning environments that meet the unique needs of their student and teacher demographics. It should go without saying that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Specifically, as states and districts are afforded the opportunity to redesign standardized assessment schedules, criteria, and participation from ELL students, it is imperative that states and districts make decisions in the interest of long-term student success rather than short-term district accountability. This article examined trends in access, equity, and the achievement of traditionally marginalized students with an acute focus on female students and students of color. Data indicate that substantially more strides have been made to support access, equity, and achievement for girls and women in STEM, compared with the trends for students of color. A review of the ESSA STEM-related policy suggests that there is tremendous potential to forge a new path for underserved populations of learners if local educational stakeholders seize this opportunity to address lingering opportunity gaps across the nation. Recommendations were provided to support initiatives to address access, equity, and achievement for girls and students of color within the guidelines outlined in the ESSA. We hope that these recommendations are reviewed and tailored to meet the state and district challenges in a meaningful and sustainable capacity.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 13, 2018, p. 1-23
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22350, Date Accessed: 7/29/2021 9:24:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Jamaal Young
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    JAMAAL YOUNG is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of North Texas. Research interests include culturally relevant STEM and access and equity in STEM. A recent publication is: Young, J., & Young, J. (2017). The structural relationship between out-of-school time enrichment and Black student participation in advanced science. Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0162353217745381
  • Mary Capraro
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    MARY MARGARET CAPRARO is a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture in the College of Education at Texas A&M University. Research interests include teacher beliefs and elementary mathematics problem-solving. Recent publications are: Barroso, L. R., Bicer, A., Capraro, M. M., Capraro, R. M., Foran, A., Grant, M. L., . . . & Rice, D. (ABC order) (2017). Run! Spot. Run! Vocabulary development and the evolution of STEM disciplinary language for secondary teachers. ZDM, 49(2), 187–201; and Young, J. L., Young, J. R., & Capraro, M. M. (2017). Black girls’ achievement in middle grades mathematics: How can socializing agents help? The Clearing House, 90(3), 70–76.
  • Robert Capraro
    Texas A&M University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT CAPRARO is a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture in the College of Education at Texas A&M University. Research interests include mathematics representations, achievement, and quantitative research methods. Recent publications are: Bicer, A., Capraro, R. M., & Capraro, M. M. (2017). Integrated STEM assessment model. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, 13(7), 3959–3968; and Capraro, R. M., Capraro, M. M., Morgan, J., Scheurich, J., Jones, M., Huggins, K., . . . Younes, R. (2016). The impact of sustained professional development in STEM in a diverse urban district. Journal of Educational Research, 109(2), 181–196.
  • Marti Cason
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    MARTI CASON is a graduate student in the Department of Teacher Education and Administration in the College of Education at the University of North Texas. Research interests include culturally responsive pedagogy and STEM teacher preparation.
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