Bioscience

Preference, not scores, show teens’ career path

May 26, 2006

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: Bloomberg News] — Teenage career preferences are a more reliable indicator than mathematical aptitude for predicting which students become scientists, suggesting a flaw in federal education strategies, a University of Virginia (UVa) study found. The federally funded survey of 3,359 students who were in the eighth grade in 1988 found those who expressed interest in science yet made only average math scores had a 34 percent chance of graduating college with a science or engineering degree. Among those with above-average math scores and no preference for science, only 19 percent of the college graduates earned such degrees, according to the study led by Robert Tai, a UVa assistant professor of science education.

The findings suggest that mandatory testing policies, such as the “No Child Left Behind” law promoted by the Bush administration as a solution to low-performing U.S. schools, might worsen the nation’s output of scientists by distracting teachers from field trips and other activities that stimulate student interest in sciences, Tai said. “We’ve been focused, in terms of national policy, so focused on achievement, getting students to do better, we’ve pretty much ignored their interest,” Tai said in an interview. “And it’s their interest that’s going to pull them through.”

President Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, warned the country is in danger of losing its technological pre-eminence and proposed spending $5.9 billion next year on education and research initiatives. Bush’s plan, now being debated in Congress, includes funds to train 70,000 additional teachers to lead “advanced placement” math and science courses, which provide high-school students with a college-level curriculum. Tai said his research, published in the May 26 issue of Science magazine, suggests such efforts might be too late, since many children already have decided career preferences by high school. In some instances, students with no interest in science are taking the advanced placement science courses merely to avoid them in college, he said.

Tai’s study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, was based on a career preference survey and a test of math skills conducted by federal researchers in 1988. About 10 percent of the eighth-graders surveyed had listed science as their most likely career choice. Tai worked with data on 3,359 of the students who graduated from a four-year college by 2000. Of those who ranked as average on their 1988 math test and expressed a preference for science, one-third earned their college degrees in a science or engineering field. Of those who scored 56 or higher out of 65 on the math test, yet did not predict science as their most likely careers at age 30, less than one-fifth earned science or engineering degrees. National Semiconductor Corp., a Santa Clara, CA-based maker of computer chips for devices such as mobile phones, reported similar findings after asking its top engineers to explain their reasons for choosing science careers.