How do Florida’s black and Hispanic students do in the K-12 science and engineering pipeline? As well as other students? Or does the pipeline leak more for these minority students?

Arne Duncan’s comments about access to advanced math and science courses in high school piqued my curiosity, so I dug into the state’s statistics on math and science courses from Algebra 1 to AP.

To figure out where to start with this analysis, let’s walk back from the preparation a student needs to major in engineering in college. An engineering major who arrives at college without credit for a first-semester calculus course is behind schedule even before the student’s first day of classes. In addition, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of South Florida shows that the probability that a student earns a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field dramatically increases if that student takes a calculus course in high school.

So let’s say that to be in the science and engineering pipeline, a high school student must take AP Calculus AB – which gives credit at Florida universities for Calculus 1 – as a high school senior or before. Of course, the equivalent courses for IB and AICE programs are fine as well, but the numbers of students in those programs are quite small. If a student stays on the standard high school math track (Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – AP Calculus AB), then the student must take Algebra 1 in middle school – in 8th grade or before. In Florida, all students who take Algebra 1 end the year with the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course (EOC) exam.

So let’s take a look at how many of the students in the science and engineering pipeline are black and Hispanic.

The graph shown below and labeled “AP Calculus AB” has four bars for black students and four bars for Hispanic students. The left-most bar for each is the percentage of these students in Florida schools. 22.9% of the students in Florida’s schools in the academic year that is ending now are black, and 30.0% are Hispanic. The next bar is the percentage of students who passed the Algebra 1 EOC in middle school in 2012-2013 who are black or Hispanic. You can see the first stage of the achievement gap in the drop from the percentage of black students in the schools to the percentage of middle school Algebra 1 EOC passers, which is 13.3%. There isn’t that big a drop for Hispanic students – 26.8% of middle school Algebra 1 EOC passers are Hispanic.

The next two bars are the percentage of AP Calculus AB test takers who are black (Hispanic) and the percentage of AP Calculus AB test passers (score 3 or above) who are black (Hispanic). Now if everything (schools, family support, and the students themselves) was working well in high school for these students, those bars would be the same heights as the middle school Algebra 1 percentages – that is, the share of the state’s Calculus AB exam-takers and exam-passers who are black and Hispanic would be the same as the shares of the Algebra 1 EOC passers. The Hispanic percentages drop off somewhat, and any drop-off is too much. However, the black percentages drop off sharply. So something is going seriously wrong with the education of black students in the science and engineering pipeline at the high school level. Perhaps they don’t have enough access to AP Calculus AB. Maybe their calculus teachers aren’t very good. Maybe they aren’t getting the family support to succeed in these classes.

To provide some contrast, below is the equivalent plot for white and Asian-American students. The shares of white students who are Calculus AB exam takers and exam passers are somewhat higher than the share of middle school Algebra 1 EOC passers. The Asian-American results are even more striking. These results show even more clearly how dire the situation for black students in Florida’s science and engineering pipeline is.

I’ve heard often that the only thing we can do for minority students is to improve preschool and elementary education, and that’s where the emphasis should be. But what I’ve proven to myself here is that preschool and elementary is only part of the problem. We should – and could – do much better at the high school level, moving strong black and Hispanic math students ahead in the science and engineering pipeline with fewer leaks.

Below I show equivalent plots for black and Hispanic students in all the remaining AP science and math courses.

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