From my op-ed in the June 9 Tallahassee Democrat:
…standardized tests that carry consequences for the students taking them can be an important engine for improving the state’s education system. But poor decision-making can render standardized testing destructive as well, as demonstrated by the decline in science instruction in several of our local high schools.
The state’s passing rate of 59% on this year’s algebra exam was higher than that expected (55%) on the basis of last year’s scores. The significant improvement in Algebra 1 performance in the past year has been attributed by some teachers around the state to the need to cover topics that are tested but were not previously included in some classes. In this way, the test can be said to have improved instruction.
But the test also demonstrated the value of providing the opportunity to take Algebra 1 for students as young as seventh grade. Taking Algebra 1 in seventh grade can be valuable because it puts a student on a track for completing two years of Advanced Placement calculus in high school. This gives a student a significant boost toward earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering or the physical sciences, the fields with the best economic opportunities for new bachelor’s degree grads.
The statewide passing rate for the 13,000 seventh graders who took the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam was 94%. An impressive 42% of seventh-grade test-takers earned the maximum score of “5”. It’s clear that there is a large population of seventh-graders who are perfectly capable of succeeding in Algebra 1, and they should be provided with that opportunity.
Leon County is among the state’s leaders in offering Algebra 1 to seventh-graders: 13% of Leon’s Algebra 1 test-takers were in seventh grade. But many of Florida’s school districts, including Wakulla and Jefferson Counties, do not offer Algebra 1 to their seventh graders. (In the quickly improving Gadsden County school system, 6.1% of the algebra test-takers were seventh-graders, close to the state rate of 6.7%.)
But Florida’s standardized testing program has damaged science classes that are important to those students who are hoping to pursue engineering or physical science careers. The state has only one end-of-course exam in high school science, and it is in biology. Starting next year, students will have to pass the biology end-of-course exam to graduate, and schools are beginning to focus resources on the task of making sure that every student can pass this test.
As the state’s highest priority high school science subject, biology is an odd choice. The National Academy of Education said in a white paper that starting a high school science sequence with biology is “out of order”, and that it makes no sense to introduce biology students “to the complex molecules within cells and the structure of DNA even though they know little about atoms and next to nothing about the chemistry and physics that can help them make sense of these structures and their functions.”
For students hoping to pursue careers in engineering and the physical sciences, the emphasis on biology is particularly troublesome. Long-term research on Florida students demonstrates that it is physics – not biology or even chemistry – that is the high school course most strongly correlated with earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field. A science education researcher from Harvard recently reported that avoiding biology in high school actually makes a student more likely to earn a science or engineering degree. Yet several local high schools whose populations include large percentages of students from disadvantaged backgrounds – including Godby and Florida High – have dropped physics from their course offerings. Instead, they advise interested students to take a virtual course on physics, even though the effectiveness of such a course has never been demonstrated…