Congress: Play Your Part in Closing the Skills Gap

America’s students still lag behind their global peers. Congress has the chance to reverse this trend by reauthorizing and strengthening the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

America ranks a dismal 16th in literacy, problem-solving and math skills of top-performing “millennials” – those between ages 16 and 24 – in 22 affluent countries, according to a new study from the Education Testing Service. That puts our students well behind the likes of Germany and South Korea. The picture becomes even grimmer when researchers expanded their focus to millennials across the world: America ranked dead last in math and problem-solving.

While our young people are lagging, industry demand for these skills has never been higher. This gap threatens the long-term health of the American economy.

When it comes to math, Massachusetts has the highest-achieving public school students in the country. Yet they are a full two-and-a-half years behind their counterparts in Shanghai. Overall, only about 3 in 4 American children are proficient in “Level 2” math, defined by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development as necessary to “participate effectively and productively in life.”

Meanwhile, the domestic supply of “STEM” jobs – in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is expected to grow to 9 million by 2022. These are the positions of the future, offering sturdy employment, engaging work, and significantly higher wages than jobs in other sectors.

There is a yawning disconnect between the capabilities of America’s young workers and the skills sought by America’s employers. I have witnessed this gap firsthand.

STEM-trained employees are crucial to my company’s business. In our home state of North Carolina, which has actively fostered high-tech research corridors, the local supply of STEM jobs is expected to jump by 24 percent this decade.

But the local public schools are not equipping students with the skills needed to secure these positions. Indeed, fewer than half of graduating high school students even qualify as college-ready. As a result of this tension between employer demands and worker qualifications, it sometimes takes up to two years for us to fill a job opening.

In reauthorizing ESEA, Congress has a chance to strengthen our education system, while helping to close America’s STEM skills gap. To this end, there are a several important principles lawmakers should adopt.

First, states should establish clear expectations for what students need to know in each grade. Those expectations should be internationally benchmarked, so that students can compete head-to-head with their global peers, and ensure that each high school graduate is prepared for success in college and, ultimately, in a career.

States should also set realistic student-achievement goals and develop their own tests and metrics for monitoring progress. I understand there is too much testing today. However, requiring only 17 tests throughout the entire K-12 years is not “over-testing.” To understand how students are learning, assessments should be conducted annually in grades three through eight and at least once in high school for math and reading. For science, students should be tested once in elementary school, middle school and high school.

Reliable, easily understood performance data should be available to parents so they can make sound educational decisions for their children, understanding if their children are on track to graduate from high school with the needed preparation for a career, the military or college. Solid performance data will also help policymakers identify students and schools that are struggling. Such data will also enable states to reward educators and schools when improvement targets are met and take action when they are not.

By following these principles, Congress, through ESEA, can give states the support and flexibility they need to help students achieve greater educational success, while still holding schools, teachers and administrators accountable. Doing so will also help close the STEM skills gap and put us on a path of sustained economic growth. America’s CEOs urge Congress to ensure American workers do not slip even further behind their global competitors, and strengthen ESEA through its reauthorization.

Dr. James Goodnight is CEO of SAS and a member of the U.S. Business Roundtable.