STEM education in the U.S. has become embroiled in politics, far from the objective nature of STEM. Florida, a conservative state, recently rejected 54 math textbooks, citing reasons including “references to Critical Race Theory (CRT), inclusions of Common Core, and the unsolicited addition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.” On the other hand, many colleges, mostly liberal, have made standardized testing optional, or even omitting them, such as the UC system. As a STEM student, my first thought was that while social justice is important, it should belong in social studies and history classes; it should be kept separate from math, which is purely objective. And since STEM is objective and critical for the economy and progress, we should simply set a high national standard and objectively hold students accountable through standardized testing. However, as I do more research and reflect on my experience as a student, the more uncertainties arise about the realities of implementing education.
One of the examples of “problematic elements” provided by the Florida Department of Education shows an exercise in polynomial modeling that uses data associating bias with age and political identification from the Implicit Association Test, which is a method not without controversies. When used for a brief math exercise, much context of how the data is collected is taken out. For example, how was data collected and how are the scores calculated? Without this context, students may develop inaccurate biases that certain age groups or political affiliations are more or less racist, which may lead to ageism and political discrimination. In addition, STEM is a difficult subject for many, and having students grapple with the big issues of social justice as they learn math may be too much for students’ bandwidth.
There are other options to teach polynomial modeling that are free of controversy and relate to real world applications, such as the height of a rollercoaster along its path or the cross-sectional height (silhouette) of a mountain. These objective examples are superior because there is no possible way for them to become controversial, allowing students to focus on learning what they are supposed to be learning. Thus, neutral objective content should be used.
However, as many critics point out, Florida’s rejection of textbooks has political undertones. While supporting the removal of social justice content from math textbooks based purely on ideology is not a rational reason, the fact that social justice content tends to be controversial, subjective, and thus distracting is a valid reason. There is still a place for different social theories to be taught in social studies and history classes where controversy is not distracting, but in fact beneficial for students to have cross dialogue and confront the issues of society.
Since STEM can and should be taught objectively, then it can and should also be evaluated objectively through standardized testing. However, as of now, there is a huge list of 900+ test-optional colleges, with tips on whether or not to submit standardized test scores, turning the application process into some kind of strategy game. While putting less emphasis on objective test scores may make more sense for non-STEM majors in subjective fields such as arts and humanities, STEM majors’ potential is directly affected by how well one knows the objective fundamentals. According to a study by the ACT, “Elliott and Strenta (1988, p. 334) described mathematics and science curriculums as ‘hierarchically organized and unforgiving of any lack in basic knowledge or skill.”
The reality is that no matter how creative you are, you will not get far in STEM without a solid background. With the prospects of STEM careers attracting many, resources are stretched thin. This can be seen in the difficulty to get a spot in many STEM classes at UC San Diego, despite the class being restricted to capped majors. It does not help to spend these resources on remediating students on subjects they should have learned in high school. Those admitted to STEM education must be already prepared for the rigor, and standardized testing is the objective means of evaluating that preparation.
Proponents of removing standardized testing argue that standardized testing favors privileged demographic groups, and removing this barrier allows underprivileged individuals to gain access to good college education which will allow them to develop their potential. However, college resources are spread too thin to allow someone, even with potential, to develop from the ground up. One should first ask why are there people with undeveloped potential? Getting rid of standardized testing for STEM is only ignoring the issue of inequality in the quality of K-12 education, and transferring the burden to colleges.
Literature, including those from the University of Pennsylvania, the United Nations, and healthypeople.gov suggests that inequalities in education compound. These data generally show achievement gaps preexisting before students enter formal schooling, and the gaps propagating throughout a student’s academic career. For example, if one learns how to read earlier, then one can study more effectively, offering an advantage that widens the knowledge gap over time. Just like with accumulating interest in banks, it is advantageous to invest early in education. Thus, it is not standardized testing that systematically screens out underprivileged individuals, but it is the K-12 school system that does so, or rather fails to close the preexisting gap, and standardized testing only objectively reflects this inequality. In this view, standardized testing would then be beneficial by spurring action to address the issue where it matters: providing equal and quality K-12 education.
From the rejection of math textbooks to the rejection of standardized testing, STEM education in the U.S. has become a political battlefield, despite STEM being an objective topic. Florida made a good move to reject math textbooks for the bad reason of antagonizing CRT, and UC made a bad move to reject standardized testing for the good reason of promoting social justice. As shown by international test scores, U.S. STEM education lags many other countries. We need to untangle STEM and politics by reorienting ourselves to the objectivity of STEM, so that we may focus on improving both STEM and social justice in parallel.
Photo courtesy of Anoushka P. on Unsplash.