More on the Sentinel Math and Science Rankings: Socioeconomics do NOT determine student enrollments in STEM courses

Instead of opening with any more words than those in the title, I’ll just lead with a graph of the district scores in the Orlando Sentinel Math and Science Rankings plotted against the percentages of students receiving free or reduced price lunches.


Yes, socioeconomics – represented here by the percentage of a district’s students eligible for free or reduced price lunch – matter.  The graph clearly shows a correlation between the Sentinel’s district math and science score and the free/reduced lunch percentage.

But there is clearly more in play.  St. Johns County, which has by far the most affluent student population in the state, was not number one in the Sentinel rankings.  And little Jefferson County, which has an epically awful fiscal situation, is in the middle of the pack at 35th.  They gave up their last drop of blood to teach their students chemistry and physics.

Consider Orange and Lake Counties, which each have free and reduced price lunch percentages near 60%.  Orange County scored 52.1 in the Sentinel district ranking, while Lake scored 26.6.

The Sentinel is publishing an editorial on the math and science rankings in tomorrow morning’s (that’s Tuesday’s) paper.  In it, I am quoted as saying that budgets don’t determine STEM success – the district’s priorities do.  The plot shown above tells that story as well as it can be told.

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Orlando Sentinel publishes math and science rankings of Florida school districts and Central Florida high schools

The Orlando Sentinel has published a ranking of all 67 Florida school districts based on their enrollments in high school upper level math and science courses as well as a similar ranking of individual Central Florida high schools.

And yes, I ran the numbers.

The top three districts are Seminole, Brevard and Leon.

The top high school using the main index was Orlando Science.  Orange County’s Freedom High School sat atop a ranking using a more restrictive index that includes only courses that count toward STEM college degrees.

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Top 25 salaries for college majors – from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

From the 2015 edition of the report “The Economic Value of College Majors”, released earlier this year by the Georgetown Center on Economics and the Workforce, here are the top 25 college majors ranked by salaries for degree holders aged 25-59.  The chart also includes the average for all college majors.  Seventeen of the top 25 are engineering fields.  The others are Pharmacy, Computer Science, Applied Mathematics, Physics, Statistics, Management Information Systems, Economics and Business Economics.


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High schools in “good science districts” are often bad at getting their students into physics classes

Physics is the high school science course that provides the gateway to STEM careers.

So school districts that care about science make sure that their students take physics in high school, right?

Well, not always.

Which school districts are “good in science”?  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the districts that are good in science are those that score well on 8th grade Science FCAT.  What are the physics-taking rates in the high schools in districts that have high passing rates on the 8th grade Science FCAT?

The figure below tells the story.


The y-axis on this plot is what we call the “District Physics Index”, or DPI.  I published several posts on the DPI last fall.  This DPI is different from last fall’s DPI for several reasons.  First of all, it uses enrollment numbers from this spring (February 2015) that are publicly available on the web site of the Florida Department of Education.  Second, this version of the DPI includes enrollments in IB and AICE physics courses.  That is a small effect, but they are now included.  To calculate the DPI, the sum of enrollments in physics courses in a district is divided by the number of 12th graders.  This quotient is our best estimate of the true physics-taking rate among high school graduates in a district.

The x-axis on the plot is the district passing rate (score 3 and above) on the 8th grade Science FCAT.

The plot shows that, in general, districts that don’t do well in middle school science (low FCAT passing rate) don’t do well getting their high school students into physics classes, either.

But the districts above the state average 8th grade Science FCAT passing rate of 48% tell a more complex story.  Some do a really nice job getting students into physics classes, like Seminole and Brevard Counties, which are the districts with physics indices up above 0.7.  But there are many more districts at 0.2 and below.  These are districts like Santa Rosa and Volusia Counties that have high 8th grade FCAT Science passing rates (63% in Santa Rosa and 58% in Volusia) and low physics-taking rates (both of these districts have DPI’s of 0.17, about a factor of four below Seminole and Brevard Counties).

Several rural counties also fall into the category of districts with high 8th grade passing rates and low physics-taking rates.  A spreadsheet with all of the numbers can be seen by clicking on the link at the bottom of this post.

So sometimes “good science districts” do not coax their students into taking physics in high school.  A reader might ask, “Is this a problem in chemistry as well?”

As the plot below shows, the answer to that question is, “much less often”.

chemistry_vs_8thgradeBeware of the y-axis here – I’ll get back to that.

Almost every district, regardless of 8th grade Science FCAT passing rate, has a chemistry-taking index (calculated the same way the physics index is) above 0.5.  A few rural districts where lots of students take chemistry early in high school and where dropout rates are high have chemistry indices above 1.0.  The extreme case is little Jefferson County, which has a chemistry index of 2.1 (hence the rather strange scale on the y-axis).  But in almost all school districts, it is assumed that all good students take chemistry.

Chemistry is not the gateway high school science course to STEM careers – physics is.  And while it’s important that every college-bound student takes chemistry, it is also important that every college-bound student takes physics.  District and school leaders seem to universally know that chemistry is important, but in many cases (like Santa Rosa and Volusia) they don’t know that physics is important.  In at least one case – Marianna High School in Jackson County – the school offers Project Lead the Way engineering but does not offer physics at all.

The bottom line is this:  It is imperative to educate school and district leaders – as well as teachers, parents and students – about the importance of taking high school physics for keeping the door open to college majors in STEM fields.

The spreadsheet with all of the above results is here:

physics and chemistry index

This is yet another Connor Oswald-driven post.

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Seminole County’s School Superintendent proposed using a college entrance exam to measure the achievement levels of all of Florida’s high school students. What would we see if we did so?

Seminole County’s Superintendent of Schools, Walt Griffin, has proposed that Florida test all of its high school students using a college entrance exam as the state’s standard measurement of high school achievement levels (as reported by Leslie Postal at School Zone here).  Griffin suggested using the SAT, but 12 states already use the ACT in the way that the superintendent suggests – to test all high school students before they graduate.

In Florida, 81% of high school grads took the ACT in 2014, and Florida students’ average scores in that year are compared to results from other states at the ACT’s interactive “Average Scores by State” page.  It doesn’t make sense to compare Florida’s average scores to those of, say, Massachusetts, where only 23% of high school grads take the ACT (the SAT still rules in Massachusetts).  But comparing the average scores earned by the 81% of Florida high school grads who take the ACT to the averages from states where 100% of grads take the test seems fair.  In fact, it is charitable to Florida – the 19% of high school grads who do not take the ACT are probably among the state’s weaker students.

The twelve states in which all high school grads take the ACT are Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

Let’s take this comparison subject by subject.

Reading:  Florida’s K-12 system focuses on reading (remember “Just Read, Florida”?) and the state’s 4th graders are famously outstanding in reading.  On the ACT, Florida’s students averaged 20.7 (out of 36).  Of the 12 states where 100% of students took the ACT, only five beat that average score (and Florida’s average score was better than seven of those states).  So far, so good.

English:  How are Florida’s writing skills?  Well, not as good as reading skills, according to the ACT.  Florida’s average score of 18.7 beats only one of the twelve states where all students take the test – and that’s North Carolina.

Math:  In math, Florida’s average of 19.5 beats four of the twelve states in which all students take the test.  Those states are Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.  Not so good.

Science:  OK, you knew this wasn’t going to be good.  And it’s not.  Florida beats only two of the 100%-taking states, and they are Mississippi and North Carolina.

So here is a question for Walt Griffin:  Does he think that Florida’s state-level education policy-makers would really go for his idea?

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Which Florida districts beat the odds in science achievement with economically challenged student populations? Calhoun, Citrus, Dixie, and Volusia stand out

When State Senator Bill Montford told me that he was just an old Calhoun County boy, I figured it was a typical (for Bill) self-deprecating remark.

I was wrong.  He was actually boasting.

The elementary and middle schools in the rural Panhandle county where Bill grew up are among Florida’s leaders in science achievement (as measured by the statewide science exams for 5th and 8th graders) with economically challenged student populations.

Bill uses his drawl to disguise his razor sharp intellect.  Judging from Calhoun County’s science FCAT scores, there are plenty of elementary and middle school students coming up there who will be able to pull the same trick.    Despite the fact that 69% of the district’s students are eligible for free and reduced price lunches (compared to Florida’s statewide rate of 58%), the district had a 57% passing rate for the 8th grade Science FCAT and a 63% passing rate for the 5th grade Science FCAT this spring.



The figures above plot percentages passing (score of 3 or above) on the 8th and 5th grade Science FCAT exams against the percentages of each district’s students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunches (FRL %).  At a free and reduced price lunch percentage of 69%, Calhoun’s passing rates stand out from those of its socioeconomic peer districts.

But for sheer standing out, no district can beat little Dixie County, where 99% of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches.  The district’s 5th grade science achievement (66% passing) and 8th grade result (48% passing – right near the state average) are remarkable for the circumstances.

Citrus County – the medium-sized district which has four elementary schools that each have a passing rate of 70% or better despite each having an FRL of 70% or greater – has an overall 5th grade Science FCAT passing rate of 62% despite its district-wide FRL of 66%.  Its 8th grade passing rate of 51%, while not as impressive as the 5th grade passing rate, is still above the state average.

Volusia County did particularly well on the 8th grade science test, earning a passing rate of 58% despite the district FRL of 64%.  The district’s 5th grade passing rate of 59% is not quite as distinguished as the 8th grade result, but it is still strong given the district’s socioeconomic challenges.

A full spreadsheet of results is linked below.


This is yet another post that would not have happened without Connor Oswald’s skills.

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A letter to Amanda Ripley, who was the inspiration for the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program

The news about Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program has finally circulated around the state and nation.  After Jeff Solochek’s original article at the Tampa Bay Times appeared, newspapers around Florida published articles on the program, and articles also appeared on the education blogs at the Washington Post and Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as in the Houston Chronicle.  In 2015-16, the program will pay new K-12 teachers $10,000 bonuses if they earned a high score on either the ACT or SAT while they were in high school, and pay the same bonuses to teachers already in the system if they have the required ACT/SAT score from high school and also earned a “highly effective” rating for the 2014-15 school year.

Jeff Solochek reported that in coming up with the idea for the program, State Representative Erik Fresen was inspired by Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, which describes education systems in other nations.  I asked in a tweet what Amanda Ripley would think of Fresen’s Best and Brightest Program, and her tweeted response was “Thx for asking. I like seeing teachers get paid more $. Is it perfect? No. Neither am I. But what do you think?”  I responded, but didn’t get anything more.  So I wrote her a real e-mail on Monday, and haven’t received a response to that, either.  For the record, here is the e-mail I sent her Monday.  It lays out some of my concerns about the program.

Dear Ms. Ripley:

I’m writing about your tweet regarding the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program. I responded (twice, actually), but this subject deserves more than 280 characters.

During the last few decades, Florida’s public schools have done a remarkable job improving the reading achievement of its students despite these students’ socioeconomic challenges (the state’s free and reduced lunch rate is significantly above the national rate). However, teacher turnover at high-poverty schools still tends to be higher than at schools with more affluent students, and low income students still tend to do more poorly in reading achievement than higher income students.

Furthermore, the achievement rates of Florida’s students in math and science are either at the national average or below on NAEP. The lack of focus on math and science also shows up clearly in Advanced Placement results. Florida is among the nation’s leaders in AP exams on social science, world languages and English. In math and science, the state is only average despite the significant fiscal incentives for AP success built into the state’s education budget.

So here are two problems that I claim can be addressed by constructive policies on differential pay for teachers. First, we need strong, experienced teachers to persist at high poverty schools. Second, we need to attract more strong math and science students into teaching.

The SAT-based Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship program that was recently enacted will not directly address either.

It would make much more sense to pay teachers $10,000 annual salary supplements to teach at schools where the free and reduced lunch rate is 70% or above (the state’s rate is 58%). It would also make more sense to pay $10,000 annual salary supplements to teachers who hold bachelors’ degrees in math or the physical sciences where average starting salaries for new bachelors’ degree grads are $50,000 per year or above. (For comparison, starting teacher salaries in Florida run between $35,000 and $40,000)

The $44 million that we will spend on the SAT-driven Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program in 2015-2016 could have done a great deal to address these two issues. It’s a shame that this money is being misspent instead.

Paul Cottle

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