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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

Don't Judge STEM Success By Test Scores Alone, Educators Say

Gavin Parr, an eighth-grader at Oakwood STEM Academy, demonstrates his model car/Afi Scruggs

Gavin Parr spent his lunch period working on his car. But the eighth-grader wasn’t peering under a hood; he was leaning into a computer screen. He didn’t have a wrench; he used a mouse to manipulate the car he designed with software. Eventually, he’ll print his project out but it won’t be on paper.

“I built my own 3D printer at home, so I plan to end up printing the whole model and putting it all together from like, a browser,” he said.

Gavin goes to the Oakwood STEM Academy in Canton, a school within a school that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math. Educators and business leaders say he’s the worker of the future: technically proficient, and creative when it comes to engineering and mechanics.

But he says he’s not good in math, the big M in the STEM.

 “I did do algebra this year, even though math isn’t my number one subject. I get about “B plus” every quarter.”

In Ohio, like the rest of the nation, educators are looking to STEM – Science, Engineering Math and Technology, for the jobs of the future. But a national think tank worries Ohio students won’t have the math to work in fields like Robotics.

The RAND Corporation is studying the STEM labor force around the Marcellus Shale natural gas field.  Its report noted Ohio eighth-graders’ math scores are dropping on the standardized test called “the nations report card,” and concluded students won’t have the background jobs require.  

But students and educators counter test scores don’t tell the entire story.

Gavin knows math is important if he wants to study engineering, but he believes other skills matter just as much.

They shouldn’t look at test scores, because you could some kid who grew up building engines with his dad and stinks at math and science, but he knows who mechanically it works. “

Robert Hardis, the superintendent of Beachwood Schools, near Cleveland, would say that kind of student shows student has demonstrated ability. Portfolios are  an important part of his district’s STEM program.  

All of our students have a portfolio of work. Probably many discarded prototypes that didn’t work are part of that portfolio in order to show the evolution of the design process and thought process,” Hardis said.  

Embracing failure distinguishes STEM from more traditional educational approaches.  

At Oakwood, Gavin and his classmates see wall slogans encouraging them to “Fail Often to Succeed Sooner.” That’s because they’re learning steps engineers use in the workplace. And failure is embedded in the process, Oakwood Principal Jeanne McNeal said.

 “The idea is that they design. They redesign, they re-evaluate and it’s a continuous project until they get their problem solved.”

The STEM approach also emphasizes collaboration. When Oakwood students are assigned a project, they work in teams, not on their own. McNeal pointed to a scale model of a room, as she explained the process for completing the assignment.

They start with sketching and mapping out their project. Then they follow steps in order to achieve that goal. In the real world, as professionals we all collaborate as teams. So we’re preparing them for their future positions.”

Because the portfolio is crucial in STEM, educators say test scores alone won’t predict a student’s ability. In Beachwood, 76 percent of eighth-graders passed the state math tests, compared to 52 percent of students state-wide. But Hardis says that figure isn’t sufficient to say the district has a good STEM program.

“ I’m hard pressed to tell you a single measure, that our nation, our state or even one school system can look at to know definitively whether we’re successful or not,” he said. “We look at multiple measures to do that, and then are watching where our students are in the future.”

That’s a future where models like the one Gavin designed and produced could matter at least as much as test scores