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.