A school district that wants its students to have access to careers in engineering and the physical sciences – which dominate lists of the most economically valuable bachelors’ degrees – must offer physics courses in its high schools. In addition, such a district must make sure that the entire population of students who can succeed in those careers (roughly the top third) take physics in high school.
I took a look at data on 2013-2014 physics course enrollment thoughtfully provided by the Florida Department of Education and found that several of Florida’s school districts stand out in making sure that a large number of students take physics in high school.
To compare school districts, I summed the numbers of students taking four physics courses – Physics 1, Honors Physics 1, AP Physics B, and AP Physics C. It’s worth noting that 2013-2014 was the last year that AP Physics B was offered, and that it is being “replaced” (sort of – more on that later) by two new algebra-based courses, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. I then divided this total number of physics students by the number of 12th graders in the district. I call this quotient the District Physics Index (DPI). Few Florida students take two years of physics, so the DPI roughly corresponds to the percentage of high school graduates who have taken a physics course during high school.
Three districts stand out with the highest DPI’s – Brevard, Seminole and Jefferson Counties. The Brevard and Seminole DPI’s of 0.74 and 0.73, respectively (roughly corresponding to about 70% of high school grads having taken a physics course) far exceed any other district’s except for Jefferson’s. Both Brevard and Seminole have had large populations of STEM professionals for many years and have strong educational traditions. Both have student populations near 70,000.
Jefferson County couldn’t be more different. The small rural county just east of Tallahassee had fewer than 1,000 K-12 students in 2013-2014, and has struggled for years with its high school graduation rate and its finances. Yet 38 students took Physics 1 last year – and the district had only 40 12th-graders – giving a DPI of 0.95.
Jefferson County’s commitment to teaching physics contrasts starkly with the failure of many of Florida’s rural counties to even offer a physics course. Eleven districts with student populations as large as 6,850 (Jackson County) and as small as 1,234 (Lafayette County) didn’t offer physics at all. The other districts not offering physics at all were Dixie, Gadsden, Glades, Hamilton, Hardee, Levy, Liberty, Madison, and Union.
The DPI’s for all of Florida’s school districts are shown in the graphs below. The districts are grouped by student population.
Among Florida’s seven districts with more than 100,000 students, Duval County stands out for its DPI of 0.39. Only Brevard, Jefferson and Seminole Counties have higher DPI’s. Despite its many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Duval has continued to make science a priority in its high schools.
The other district with a 0.39 DPI is the 8,500 student Monroe County school district. Monroe requires four science courses for high school graduation, higher than the state requirement of three.
As mentioned above, the algebra-based AP Physics B course was offered for the last time in 2013-2014. The two new algebra-based AP courses, Physics 1 and Physics 2, replace Physics B, but actually have a broader mission. AP Physics 1 is actually intended to replace Honors Physics courses by offering a curriculum based on the results of research into how students learn physics and the AP brand. Later on this year, we will see how many districts have replaced Honors Physics with AP Physics 1.
In a few weeks, the State Board of Education will vote on whether to give students in Florida’s public colleges and universities who have passed the AP Physics 1 and 2 exams credit for the college-level algebra-based physics courses that are required for life science majors.