With its new high school, Orlando Science Schools breaks into Washington Post’s national challenge ranking

A media release from the Orlando Science Schools:

The Washington Post released an article naming the top 2300 Most Challenging Top Ranked Schools in the Nation with OSHS coming in at # 56 in the nation and ranking #13 in the State of Florida with this honor.

This ranking puts Orlando Science High School in the top 1% in the country.

The criteria included Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June.

We are so proud to be named and are truly humbled and proud of our students!

The Washington Post challenge ranking can be seen here.  Orlando Science Schools graduated its first class of seniors last spring.  

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Florida needs its elementary school teachers to be better educated in science, but FSU’s e-series course rules block one effort to address this

My regular readers (both of you) were probably completely puzzled by my spoof post on the rules regulating FSU’s e-series courses, which are the university’s signature liberal arts courses.  They are intended to be instructional models.  As only the most demented readers probably figured out, all e-series courses (including those in math and science) are required to base 35% of their grades on writing assignments.  The assertion in the post that e-series courses in music and literature are required to have a 35% math component was just a bad joke.

But here is where the rubber hits the road with e-series courses, and it’s not funny at all.  Florida desperately needs its elementary school teachers to be better at science.  Or maybe this is a more practical approach:  Florida desperately needs a huge number of elementary science specialists – at least one for each elementary school in the state.  Future elementary school teachers who want to be good at science – or even highly qualified elementary science specialists – need to learn their science in inquiry-driven hands-on science classes.  Traditional lecture courses will just not do.

The nationally-recognized gold standard in hands-on physics courses for future elementary school teachers is a course called Physics of Everyday Thinking.  It was painstakingly developed and tested over a period of years by physics education researchers, and it is revolutionizing the preparation of elementary school teachers at institutions like the University of Minnesota, where I recently visited.

FSU has offered special science courses for future elementary teachers on several occasions in its history.  Most recently, I taught such course using the highly-regarded and pioneering curriculum Physics by Inquiry in 2008.  But the course died for lack of enrollment – not enough future elementary teachers were registering to make the course financially sustainable.

FSU now requires its students to take e-courses, but there are almost none in the sciences.  Given the 35% writing requirement, that shouldn’t be a surprise.  But offering Physics of Everyday Thinking as an e-course would guarantee that it would be well subscribed and financially sustainable.

Physics of Everyday Thinking would be a great e-course.  It would fill a critical statewide need by giving future elementary teachers the best possible learning opportunity.  As a nationally recognized gold standard, it would be the best possible example of an exemplary course, the stated purpose of the e-course program.

But it would require a waiver of the 35% writing rule.  I offered to teach the course if the rule were waived, and I was turned down.  The aficionados on the FSU campus might be wondering about this:  Faculty who teach e-courses are given an additional salary supplement in the form of summer salary.  I don’t need it (I have other ways to get summer salary).  I would teach the course without the summer salary.  Still no – Physics of Everyday Thinking cannot be offered as an e-course.

The rule requiring 35% of an e-course’s grade to be based on writing is a dumb rule devised by poorly informed Faculty Senators and administrators that is keeping some of us in the sciences from doing important work to improve the State of Florida.  This e-course rule may even be more destructive than the liberal studies regulations that are causing problems for FSU’s model studio physics program.

At this point, it’s likely the best advice for me would be that given to Phil the Camel in this GEICO commercial (“Let it go, Phil”).  But it’s galling that it’s my own colleagues – some of whom I know well – who have put us in this situation.

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FSU to require mathematical component in premier courses on literature and music (Corrected!)

See correction at the bottom!!

The Florida State University Faculty Senate has passed a new rule regarding literature and music courses in the university’s signature e-series liberal arts program that will require each of these courses to include a mathematical component accounting for 35% of the course grade.

Faculty in the College of Music and Department of English immediately reacted with anger.  One English professor accused the science faculty of “trying to impose a science instructional model on the humanities”.  A long-time member of the music faculty argued that “experts in music education – not physicists – should be regulating music education.”

One science professor who preferred to remain anonymous argued that the new requirement was justified because the e-series liberal studies courses “should be focused on transferable skills.”  The faculty member went on to explain that “studies have shown that students taking English and music courses do not improve their quantitative skills” and that this shortcoming should be addressed.

Correction:  The rule passed by FSU’s Faculty Senate actually requires a 35% writing component in e-series math and science courses.  We apologize for any alarm this mistake might have caused.  By the way, the university is having trouble getting math and science faculty to offer e-series courses.  Go figure.

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Women, Hispanics also underrepresented among Florida’s AP math and science exam passers

While the underrepresentation of black students among Florida’s AP exam passers in math and science is profound, the underrepresentation of females among these students is severe in some of these subjects as well.  And Hispanics are underrepresented as well, although not as severely as black students.

While females are actually overrepresented among exam passers in AP Biology, they are strongly underrepresented in physics, and especially in computer science.  It is also interesting to note that females are more strongly underrepresented in the higher level calculus course, Calculus BC, than they are in the first calculus course, Calculus AB.


The underrepresentation of Hispanic students among AP exam passers in math and science is not as severe as that of black students, but is certainly significant.


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Is Florida’s AP program really overflowing with success? It’s probably more realistic to say that the glass is half empty.

If you are a Florida education policy-maker who read last week’s posts by Ron Matus at redefinedonline.org and Mike Thomas at Ed Fly about the 2014 Advanced Placement cohort report released by the Florida Department of Education, you could be forgiven for declaring Advanced Placement victory and moving on to the next challenge.  Ron and Mike reported that Florida is one of the nation’s leaders in the percentage of high school graduates who have passed at least one AP exam.

I’m writing to point out that Florida’s AP glass is actually half empty.  In fact, if a reader is willing to concede that the best economic opportunities are now (and will continue to be) available to students who are well prepared for careers in STEM fields, then the empty half of the glass is very important indeed.

The first order of business here is to point out that while Florida’s students are doing a world-beating job on AP exams in the social sciences (and also doing well in English, the arts and world languages), their performance in AP math and science is merely average.  The data we look at in this post are from the 2014 AP participation reports posted last year.  These reports give the raw numbers of students who earn each possible score on each exam. (Scores range from 1 to 5. 3 and above are considered passing.)  To compare individual states like Florida with the nation and with each other (Mike and Ron wrote about Massachusetts, so we will compare that state with Florida), we divide the raw numbers of passing students by the numbers of high school students in a state or the nation to extract the number of students who passed exams (or “passers”) per 1000 high school students.

It’s also worth noting that I am taking a very different look at AP than Mike and Ron did.  They focused on a particular statistic – the percentage of 2014 high school graduates who had passed at least one AP exam (which is about 30% for the leading states, including Florida).  They did not differentiate among students by what exam or exams they had passed – AP courses in Human Geography, English and Calculus are considered equivalent.

So let’s start with this:  In the first figure, I compare the numbers of AP exam passers per 1000 high school students in Florida, Massachusetts, and the nation in five categories of AP exams – world languages, social sciences, English, the arts, and math/natural sciences/computer science.  Florida is a world beater in social sciences.  Even I am willing to admit that this is a good thing, and that Florida’s AP glass is half full.  Florida’s students are also significantly above average in world languages, English and the arts.  But in math and science, Florida is just a bit above the national average and far behind Massachusetts.  The greatest economic opportunities are now in math and science, so this is bad news.


In fact, the math and science news is even a little bit worse than it looks at first.  The second figure breaks out the individual math and science courses.  Florida schools have prioritized the adoption of AP Environmental Science, the only AP course that does not count toward a bachelor’s degree in math, science or engineering at Florida’s public universities.  Florida is far ahead of the nation – and even ahead of Massachusetts – in AP Environmental Science, but close to or below the national rates in the other math and science courses.


Finally, we look at black students.  The percentages of black students among science and engineering degree recipients in Florida’s State University System are dismally low.  This severe and persistent underrepresentation is also apparent in Florida’s AP results, which are shown below.   21% of Florida’s population is black, but except in biology, less than 5% of the passers on math and science exams are black.


To be fair, Florida’s problems with black students in math and science are not unique – these are national problems.  But to trumpet Florida’s AP successes without at least noting the state’s just average performance in math and science is a temptation for policy-makers to declare victory and walk away.  Florida has already done this once.  Florida’s remarkable success in teaching reading at the elementary level (as demonstrated by NAEP results) has contrasted starkly with the state’s failure to be any better than average on the NAEP math and science assessments.

As long as those who have actual influence over Florida’s education policies are not willing to even acknowledge that Florida has a math and science problem, we will not make any progress.  That’s why what they – and their spokespersons – say is so important.

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Giving all of Florida’s students the chance to run as fast as they can: Elementary and middle school math and science

Those who follow Florida education policy know about the state’s success in reading instruction, especially at the elementary level (read a Florida Department of Education press release on this subject here).

But what about the state’s performance on math and science?  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Florida is frustratingly average in these subjects, despite the state’s success in reading.

The plots below compare Florida’s proficiency rates at the 4th and 8th grade levels on the 2013 NAEP math assessment to the national rates.  The plots show the proficiency rates not only for all students, but for African-Americans, Hispanics, and students whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for free and reduced price lunches.



At the 4th grade level, Florida is average, with slightly better-than-average performance by the state’s black and lunch-eligible students.  Hispanic 4th graders perform significantly better than the national rate.  But the 4th grade math performance does not even come close to the state’s performance level in reading.

At the 8th grade level, Florida is below average.  The performance of black and lunch-eligible students is indistinguishable from the national averages.

The last NAEP science assessment was in 2011, and only looked at 8th graders.


Once again, Florida’s performance is uninspiring.  Hispanic students exceed the national average, but other than that…ugh.

So what would it take to do better?  The answer, as it always seems to be, is more strong teachers.  Sherman Dorn argues that elementary reading coaches drove the state’s achievement in reading.  Improvements in elementary math and science will almost certainly require specially trained math and science coaches.  At the middle school level, we need teachers who are “stronger in content” – that is, better mathematicians and scientists.  And we need to be willing to invest more to get these teachers.

I’ve included plots of proficiency rates by gender for the NAEP math and science assessments below.  What’s most striking about these is that the gender gap that shows up in high school and college really hasn’t caught hold even at the middle school level.




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On the validity of FSA testing, with apologies to NPR’s Planet Money team

This post is inspired by two recent events.  One is the Florida Senate’s decision to require an independent psychometric assessment of the validity of the Florida Standards Assessment (see the School Zone report on this here).  The other is last week’s story by National Public Radio on economics jokes.

Three psychometricians went on a deer hunt. After some time, they came upon a deer.

The first psychometician took a shot at the deer, but missed six feet to the left.

The second psychometrician took a shot at the deer, but missed six feet to the right.

The third psychometrician starting jumping up and down in jubilation. “We got him!” he cried.

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