California high school graduates may soon be able to show off their academic success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, with a new seal on their diploma.
A bill creating the State Seal of STEM, Assembly Bill 28, passed the state Legislature Tuesday and now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. He has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto the bill.
Supporters of the State Seal of STEM hope it will encourage students to take science and math courses, pursue STEM career paths and leave high school with evidence that they attained a high level of proficiency in STEM subjects. They also hope it will motivate high schools to offer more STEM courses and other opportunities.
“This sends a very clear signal that the state greatly values a STEM education and the potential that a high-quality STEM education presents for students,” said Jessica Sawko, associate director of the California STEM Network, a project of the nonprofit Children Now.
To earn the seal, which is added to a student’s high school diploma, students must meet criteria that include a minimum 3.0 grade point average for all science, technology, engineering and math courses in high school. Students must also take four year-long courses in both math and science and one of the years of math can be satisfied with computer science.
If signed by Newsom, California will join 11 other states — including New York, Texas, Colorado and Nevada — that have adopted policies to award similar STEM graduation honors.
The State Seal of STEM is free for students who qualify. But school districts, county offices of education or charter schools must volunteer to participate. Without offering the seal at the state level, some experts warn that access to the STEM designation could vary widely.
A 2019 report by Achieve, a nonprofit education reform organization, shows that for those receiving STEM graduation honors gaps exist among racial and ethnic groups in some states. “Historically, underserved and marginalized groups of students have lacked access to opportunities like these, which lead to gaps in achievement,” the report states.
AB 28 states that California’s State Seal of STEM will not become operational until the California State Board of Education declares that all California students have an equal opportunity to take coursework needed to meet the seal’s criteria.
Much work remains to be done on that front. Some high schools around the state don’t offer enough courses for students to take four years of math or science. In 2015-16, African-American students were less likely to attend high schools that offer advanced math or science classes than their white and Asian peers, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Adding to the challenge is a statewide teacher shortage in hard-to-fill subjects like physics or advanced math.
“Not all students have access to this type of educational experience. We know some schools don’t offer physics or chemistry or enough math courses,” Sawko said. She added that she is pleased to see that the seal won’t be effective until the state board can say that all students have a chance to take the courses they need to earn the seal.
“There is a need for California to invest more in its schools overall, so that they have the funding necessary to offer STEM as well as other courses and services,” Sawko said.
California already offers two seals: the Golden State Seal Merit Diploma and the State Seal of Biliteracy. The Golden State Seal of Merit Diploma was approved in 1996 to recognize students who demonstrate mastery of the high school curriculum in at least six subject areas, four of which must be English language arts, mathematics, science and U.S. history. All local education agencies that issue diplomas are required to offer the Golden State Seal Merit Diploma to students.
The State Seal of Biliteracy, created in 2011, recognizes students who have attained high proficiency in speaking, reading and writing in one or more languages in addition to English. That seal is not mandatory, but 321 out of 420 eligible school districts in California now offer the Seal of Biliteracy, according to a report from Californians Together, a statewide advocacy organization for English Learners.
In 2016, a similar California bill tried to create a State Seal of STEM but died in the Legislature. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to suspend that bill in part because the state’s new science assessment results weren’t going to be available for several years.
The State Seal of STEM will not be in effect until scores from the new science test are available, expected to be January 2020.