Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education: Actions Needed to Better Assess the Federal Investment

GAO-18-290 Published: Mar 23, 2018. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 2018.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

The federal investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs remained relatively stable from fiscal years 2010 to 2016, although the number of programs declined from 209 to 163 (see figure). While agencies reported that many of the same STEM education programs existed during this time period, the portfolio underwent various changes, including program consolidations, creations, and terminations. Nearly all STEM education programs in fiscal year 2016 overlapped to some degree with at least one other program in that they offered similar services to similar groups in similar STEM fields to achieve similar objectives. The Committee on STEM Education, an interagency body responsible for implementing the federal STEM education strategic plan, reported it managed this overlap through coordination with agencies administering these programs.

Number of Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Programs Reported in Fiscal Years 2010 and 2016

Number of Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Programs Reported in Fiscal Years 2010 and 2016

The Committee on STEM Education has not fully met its responsibilities to assess the federal STEM education portfolio. Specifically, the Committee has not reviewed programs' performance assessments, as required by its authorizing charter, nor has it documented those assessments in its inventory, as required by law. Such efforts could encourage the use of evidenced-based practices across the portfolio—a key national goal of the STEM education strategic plan. These efforts could also enhance public awareness of the administering agencies' efforts to assess programs' performance. In addition, the Committee has not reported the participation rates of underrepresented groups in federal STEM education programs, as required by law. By reporting this information, the Committee could better assess whether programs are broadening access to groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields—another key goal of the strategic plan.

Why GAO Did This Study

Education programs in STEM fields are intended to enhance the nation's global competitiveness. GAO reported in 2012 that there were more than 200 federal STEM education programs in fiscal year 2010. Since then, this portfolio of programs has changed. GAO was asked to review the landscape of federal STEM education programs.

This report examines (1) how the federal investment in STEM education programs changed from 2010 to 2016, and (2) the extent to which the STEM education portfolio has been assessed.To answer these questions, GAO administered a web-based questionnaire to all federal STEM education programs funded in fiscal year 2016 and analyzed the results. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws and agency documents, examined the implementation of relevant assessment requirements, and interviewed officials from relevant federal agencies.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including three to the Committee on STEM Education to review performance assessments of STEM education programs, document those assessments, and report programs' participation rates of underrepresented groups. The Committee on STEM Education agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education The leadership of the Committee on STEM Education should review performance assessments of federal STEM education programs and then take appropriate steps to enhance effectiveness of the portfolio, such as by sharing promising practices that agencies could use in designing or revising their programs. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The Committee agreed with and addressed this recommendation. The Committee's 5-year STEM education strategic plan, issued in December 2018, states that to enhance the effectiveness of the STEM education portfolio, federal agencies that comprise the Committee are to perform a systematic review of evidence from current programs (e.g., performance assessments). According to the Committee's December 2021 Annual Report, Committee agencies shared how they assessed the impact of their STEM education programs. The report specified the number of programs that had been evaluated, the number of evaluations underway, and links to recently issued performance reports for individual programs. By sharing recent performance reports, the Committee has taken steps to foster interagency learning, which could enhance the portfolio's effectiveness.
Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education The leadership of the Committee on STEM Education should improve public awareness of information on programs' performance assessments by documenting program-level information on performance assessments in its federal STEM education inventory. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Committee agreed with this recommendation, and took some steps toward implementing it. One objective of the Committee's 5-year STEM education strategic plan, issued in December 2018, focuses on making program performance and outcomes publicly available. To achieve this objective, federal agencies that comprise the Committee are to document and share programs' performance assessment information for both internal strategic planning purposes and to inform public audiences. According to the annual report, issued in December 2021, Committee agencies shared information on how they assess the impact of their STEM education programs. The report also specified the number of programs that had been evaluated and the number of evaluations underway, as well as included web links to recently issued performance reports. However, the individual program assessments are not linked to the STEM education inventory, which appears as an appendix in the annual report. Such links would add transparency and make it easier for the public to understand the effectiveness of individual programs and their contributions to the overall reach of the portfolio. The strategic plan acknowledges GAO's finding on the importance of collecting, organizing, and reporting federal performance data to increase public awareness of the impact of federal STEM education programs.
Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education The leadership of the Committee on STEM Education should report required information on the participation rates of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons from rural areas in federal STEM education programs that collect this information. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Committee agreed with this recommendation, and took some steps toward implementing it. According to the Committee's 5-year STEM education strategic plan, issued in December 2018, the Committee will develop a common reporting framework that federal agencies with STEM education programs can use to provide the rates of program participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and persons in rural areas. According to its annual report, issued in December 2020, the Committee has developed standard definitions for the terms "participant" and "rural," which will help ensure it can meaningfully aggregate and compare data across programs. The most recent annual report, issued in December 2021, included information on the number of federal STEM education programs that collected and shared information on the participation rates of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons from rural areas. In January 2022, the Office of Science and Technology Policy indicated that its 2022 annual report will include more detailed data on the participation rates of these groups. GAO will continue to follow the Committee's progress toward reporting participants to determine if it fully addresses this recommendation. As noted in the strategic plan, tracking and reporting on the participation of underrepresented groups in federal STEM education programs provides agencies with information to gauge their effectiveness at fostering diversity and inclusion.
Office of Science and Technology Policy The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy should report the outcomes of programs' performance assessments completed in the previous year in its annual report. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
OSTP agreed with and addressed this recommendation. Issued December 2021, OSTP's annual report on STEM Education listed the recently assessed STEM education programs and included web links to the associated performance reports. The annual report also indicated the number of STEM education programs that been evaluated as well as the number of evaluations underway.

Full Report

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