Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program: Require high school courses in Precalculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Computer Programming instead of a test score

Florida’s leaders have raised test score requirements for the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program in an effort to rein in expenditures on the program.  Beginning this fall, the higher level Florida Medallion Scholars award requires an SAT score of 1170 (or an ACT score of 26), compared to the SAT score of 970 (or the ACT score of 20) required only three years before.  The increase is having a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic students, and the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education has revived an investigation into whether the testing requirement results in racial discrimination.  (See the March 24 article from the Miami Herald here)

Perhaps the controversy should cause our state’s policy-makers to rethink the purpose of the Bright Futures program.  If it is really a state priority to graduate more students with bachelors’ degrees in science, engineering and computer science, then Bright Futures should be recast to incentivize students to prepare for these fields in high school.  The troublesome testing requirement could be replaced with a requirement that students take the courses necessary to be well-prepared for science, engineering and computer science majors.  By doing this, we would remove the appearance of racial bias from the program and steer students from all racial and socioeconomic groups toward the most economically attractive careers.

What does it take to prepare for these college majors?  Let’s start with math.  I’d personally like to see every student graduate high school with the equivalent of a college Calculus 1 course.  The most popular way of doing this is through passing the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam – presumably after taking the year-long Calculus AB course.  But perhaps a Bright Futures requirement for a calculus course would be too ambitious.  Calculus AB is two steps above the present math requirement for the state’s Scholar high school diploma designation, which is Algebra 2 and statistics or an equivalent course.  Inexplicably, Precalculus is not required for the Scholar diploma designation.  That should be changed, but let’s say the Bright Futures math requirement should be Precalculus.  Having Precalculus and not having Calculus 1 credit coming out of high school leaves an incoming engineering or physics major one semester behind on the first day of college, but that can be made up by attending school during the summer following the first year.

What about science?  Florida’s K-12 system has a strong emotional attachment to biology, even though life science careers are problematic from an economic point of view.  So no one will ever graduate from a Florida high school without a biology credit, and biology has to be in the list of science courses required for a Bright Futures scholarship.  But every incoming student in the physical sciences and engineering must have a strong background in chemistry and physics, so those subjects should also be required for Bright Futures scholarships.  The arrival of the new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses in Florida’s classrooms this coming year should make a Bright Futures physics requirement more palatable for students who would prefer to avoid the subject out of fear or distaste.

Every high school grad – and certainly every student receiving a Bright Futures scholarship – should have some computer programming experience.  It’s obvious that a computer science major needs to know how to program.  But of course physical science and engineering majors also need skill in programming.  A computer programming course should be required for a Bright Futures scholarship.

My proposal is to replace the test score requirement for Bright Futures with a course-taking requirement that includes Precalculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Computer Programming.  Would this be a loss of rigor over an 1170 SAT requirement?  I dare anyone to tell me that it would be.  And this course requirement would put pressure on districts to make these courses available to students in all high schools.

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Steep increase in Florida bioscience bachelors’ degrees different from national trend

I noted recently that Florida’s State University System has experienced a steep increase in the number of bachelors’ degrees it has awarded in the biosciences during the last decade.  Bachelors’ degrees in the biosciences are distinguished by their low average career earnings – a bioscience bachelor’s degree holder who does not go on to earn a postgraduate degree can expect to earn less during her or his career than the average bachelor’s degree holder in a non-STEM field.  The explosion in SUS bioscience bachelors’ degrees has occurred during a period in which the percentage of SUS bachelors’ degrees being awarded in the more lucrative computer, engineering and physics fields has been flat or declining.

The rapid increase in bioscience degrees in Florida does not reflect what’s happening at the national level.  Nationally, the percentage of bachelors’ degrees being awarded in biological sciences was nearly constant from 2000 to 2011, according to the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators.  Therefore, we can assume that the rapid increase in bioscience degrees in Florida results from education policy decisions made in Florida – in particular, steering students toward these degrees by emphasizing biology over other sciences in high schools.

Plots for trends in the Florida SUS and nationally are shown below.  The time periods covered are a little different – the NSF compilation covers 2000 to 2011, while the SUS data are offset a few years.  But it’s clear that the trends are different.

It’s worth noting that the percentages for physics degrees shown below are multiplied by 10.  So the percentage of bachelors’ degrees awarded in physics nationally is about 0.3%, and in the SUS it’s about 0.2%.

SUS_bachelors_degreesmatched_national_bach_degrees_2

 

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A sobering look at women and minorities in engineering and physics

The graph below shows the time evolution of the percentages of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics that were awarded to women, African-Americans and Hispanics in the US.

The data are from the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators.

If there is significant progress over the decade-plus plotted, it eludes me.

bachelors_degrees

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League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) releases report on STEM careers

In a landmark report, LULAC has moved beyond just calling for more Hispanic students to earn college degrees and is now arguing that these students should steer toward STEM careers.

Here’s a taste:

Despite rapid population growth, in 2011, Latinos held only 7% of STEM jobs. In fact, while the number of STEM job opportunities is steadily increasing, Latinos are not reaping the benefits. Even among those Latinos with STEM degrees, Latino employment in STEM fields is low. Data also show that although 60% of Latinos are employed in the workforce, only 19% of Latino STEM graduates are employed in STEM fields. For Latinos who are employed in STEM fields, other disparities exist. For example, the median salary for a Latino employed in a STEM position is $77,300 compared to $88,400 for their white counterparts.

Addressing the underrepresentation of Latinos in STEM education and the workforce is key, given that the Hispanic population is projected to become 30% of the U.S. population in the next 25 years and will be the majority in several states. Due to this population surge, a greater proportion of Latinos will have the opportunity to fill vacancies in STEM professions and will require exten- sive STEM knowledge and STEM degrees.

In addition, while the reason for the underrepresentation of Latinos in the STEM workforce is usually attributed to lack of student preparation, it is important to note that underrepresentation can also be attributed to a lack of STEM network and career opportunities in both formal and informal spaces (both inside and outside of school). In some cases Latinos have a more challeng- ing time meeting STEM mentors and acquiring social capital that will ease them into a job. As such, a focused commitment to increase Latino representation in STEM careers will provide a greater number of role models and mentors for the Latino community.

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Share of bioscience degrees among SUS bachelors has doubled in ten years; production of degrees in computer, engineering and physical sciences flat or worse

Bioscience degrees accounted for 5.8% of all bachelors’ degrees awarded by Florida’s State University System in 2012-2013, nearly doubling from its share of 3.1% in 2003-2004.  Meanwhile, the percentages of bachelors’ degrees awarded in STEM fields with better economic prospects – computer fields, engineering and the physical sciences – were flat or even declining during the same period.

SUS_degrees_pct

The decline in computer degrees is particularly troubling from a workforce perspective, and Florida policy-makers have instituted incentives and grant programs to encourage SUS institutions to increase their production of bachelors’ degrees in computer fields.

At the same time, a study of average career earnings recently released by a Temple University economist and reported in Science Careers demonstrated that average earnings by bachelor’s degree recipients in the biosciences are not only lower than those in other STEM fields but also lower than the average for non-STEM degrees.

Florida’s high school science program is optimized to steer science-oriented students toward careers in the biosciences, and SUS institutions have encouraged growth in bioscience programs in part because educating a bachelor’s degree student in biosciences is significantly less expensive than educating a student in engineering or the physical sciences.

We previously posted a graph similar to the one above, but which showed absolute numbers of degrees.  The above plot showing percentages gives a somewhat different perspective on the numbers.

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Few of Florida’s college-educated workers are in STEM occupations. Does that affect educational decision-making in the state?

Statistics from the 2012 American Community Survey released by the US Census Bureau yesterday showed that Florida ranks near the bottom of the nation in the percentage of its college-educated workers who are in STEM occupations.

Only 8.9% of the state’s college educated workers are in STEM occupations, compared to the national rate of 12.4%.  Mississippi has the nation’s lowest rate at 6.8%, while North Dakota is second lowest at 7.1%.  States that have rates statistically indistinguishable from Florida include Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

States at the top of the ranking include Maryland (18.8%), Washington (18.3%), Virginia (16.5%), Colorado (15.1%), California (15.0%) and Massachusetts (14.8%).

The report also includes percentages of college-educated workers engaged in “STEM-related” occupations, which include a range of health care careers.

For those of us who care about providing students with opportunities to enter the engineering and physical science professions, the question is whether the relatively small size of the STEM professional community in Florida – and the relatively small role that STEM industry plays in the state’s economy – affects educational decision-making.

The spreadsheet released by the Census Bureau and from which the above statistics were extracted is here:

census_stem_pct

 

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Former FSU football star tells Congressional committee about college athletes: “A lot of them would go through this academic machinery and get spit out, left torn, worn, and asking questions.”

Inside Higher Ed reports comments by FSU Rhodes Scholar and former defensive back Myron Rolle on college sports to a Congressional committee yesterday:

Myron Rolle, a former football player at Florida State University who played in the National Football League for three years, said that many universities don’t prioritize an athlete’s education, rendering the term “student-athlete” inaccurate.

Calling himself an anomaly, Rolle, who was a Rhodes Scholar, said the number of hours occupied by games, traveling, workouts, injury treatments, and practices left little time for studying. With so few athletes continuing their sport after college, he said, many students do not have much to show for their work upon graduation.

“Many of my fellow teammates struggled in that environment,” Rolle said. “Some of them sent some of their scholarship money home to help their families. They struggled academically. A lot of them would go through this academic machinery and get spit out, left torn, worn, and asking questions.”

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