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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