College Board Launches STEM 'Credential' Initiative (U.S.News)

College- and career-bound students can now gain official recognition for studying science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM education is getting the College Board treatment.

The organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement exams announced a new effort Thursday aimed at attracting more high school students to potential careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The program, launching this fall in partnership with education nonprofit Project Lead The Way, will award a new “credential” to high school students who complete integrated Advanced Placement and Project Lead The Way coursework in engineering, biomedical science or computer science.

Companies in the STEM fields, as well as education organizations like Project Lead The Way, have long lamented how U.S. schools teach science, technology, engineering and math. Dry coursework disconnected from real-world applications, they argue, has repelled thousands of students and left many others ill-prepared to pursue STEM majors or careers, causing a shortfall of qualified workers.

“By 2020, almost two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary education and training, and that statistic really brings to light a need to focus on college and career readiness,” says Anne Jones, senior vice president and chief program officer at Project Lead The Way. “You need to bring new and innovative and creative ideas, and to make those better, you need a strong foundation. You need fluency in math, fluency in science – and that is really the area where we have seen an opportunity for people to have applied and academic experience.”

The new program, she says, combines those different, critical elements.

Each of the initiative’s three pathways – engineering, biomedical science and computer science – will consist of three parts: an introductory “on-ramp” class produced by Project Lead The Way, an Advanced Placement class the year after, and then a “specialization” class by Project Lead The Way that more deeply explores specific careers or topics, such as electronics engineering, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and aerospace engineering.

“An AP calculus course could be forbidding, but the Project Lead The Way courses will fit prior to AP as a way of bringing a group of students into that learning environment, building their foundational skills and getting them excited about taking an AP course,” says Trevor Packer, a senior vice president for The College Board and head of the organization’s Advanced Placement Program. “Then following the AP course, the student has the chance to take a specialization course that is very career-focused.”

Students who have completed the Project Lead The Way, Advanced Placement and specialization classes by the end of the 2015-16 school year will receive the program’s first credentials next summer. Those credentials will be marked on students’ transcripts for college admissions officers to see.

“Admissions officers clearly value students taking the most rigorous courses, but they also want to put a stop to any sort of arms race,” Packer says. The credential offers students the chance to "make more nuanced and principled decisions as they go through high school and tamp down on the rush to take more AP courses for AP’s sake.”

Schools that offer the integrated College Board and Project Lead The Way classes will also be awarded their own credentials, an incentive the organizations hope will encourage schools to participate.

“School administrators are looking for ways to galvanize school communities and parental communities,” Packer says. “The branding of a credential will allow them to galvanize communities around earning that.”

The ultimate goal, he and Jones say, is threefold: expand the kinds of students who enter the most rigorous STEM fields, broaden the knowledge of those interested in more technical fields, and transform mind-numbing, theoretical coursework into the types of project-based lessons that clearly demonstrate how STEM knowledge applies in the real world.

“Right now we see a lot of student segmentation, where students are branded or tracked at an early stage to pursue a technical education track or pursue a college-readiness track,” Packer says. “What we’re trying to do is break down those tracking systems.”

The College Board plans to launch a new Advanced Placement computer science course in the fall of 2016 – one focused more on broad principles than Java programming, which is emphasized in existing computer science classes. The organization is also exploring other potential Advanced Placement STEM courses in engineering and anatomy and physiology.

Yet Packer says it's the coursework by Project Lead The Way, especially for students not yet in high school, that will prove especially instrumental in boosting STEM participation, particularly when it comes to attracting more female and minority students to related fields.

“By ninth grade, many students have already fallen behind,” Packer says. “What we value about Project Lead The Way is the work they’ve done to build programs across [grades] K through eight. They’ve worked to build enthusiasm for STEM learning.”

Project Lead The Way programs are already in more than 3,300 high schools, most of which also offer Advanced Placement classes. Schools that offer both sets of courses in STEM fields will not need to pay an additional cost to take advantage of the new partnership, which essentially integrates the Project Lead The Way and Advanced Placement classes.

For schools that don't yet work with Project Lead The Way, the cost of an annual participation fee with the organization ranges from $750 to $3,000 per school, depending on the class type, plus teacher training and classroom equipment.

Students pay the cost of an Advanced Payment exam: $91 for those able to pay in full and $12 for low-income students. 

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