Seminole County’s education leaders are pushing a plan to replace many of Florida’s statewide standardized tests with national tests in an effort to address overtesting and the technical problems that plagued the state’s move to put many of its tests online this past spring. A few other districts – including Lake County and Manatee County – have thrown their support behind the plan.
At the high school level, the Seminole Solution would use a college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT to replace one or more of the state’s present suite of statewide high school level tests, which include 9th and 10th grade English Language Arts “Florida Standards Assessment” (FSA) exams, the end-of-course exams in three math subjects based on the Florida Standards (Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2), the Biology 1 end-of-course exam (which is the state’s only high school-level standardized science test), and the US History end-of-course exam.
The SAT has three sections – critical reading, math, and writing. In principle, the SAT could replace Florida’s 9th and 10th grade English Language Arts exams and one or more of the high school math end-of-course exams.
But the ACT has a science section in addition to reading, math and writing sections. And that exam’s science section could significantly improve high school science education in Florida. Here’s how:
The fact that biology is the only science subject for which Florida high schools are held accountable distorts decisions on academic programs made by high school and district administrators. I recently heard about one high school IB program where students take only biology courses, and no chemistry or physics. Unfortunately, this works fine within the IB framework. In fact, about half of Florida’s high school IB programs don’t offer IB physics at all.
Overall, Florida’s physics-taking rate is about 25%, significantly lower than the national rate given by the American Institute of Physics of 39%. Given that 18 of the top 25 majors for salaries given in a recent report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce are in engineering or physics, this is a real problem for Florida’s high school students. It’s worth noting that the average salary for biology majors quoted by the Georgetown folks is not only much lower than those in engineering and physics, but is also significantly below the average salary for all college majors – not just STEM majors, but all majors. By making biology the only high school science subject that is tested on a statewide basis, Florida is focusing its high school science instructional effort on the worst-paying science field.
How could the ACT science section help change Florida’s underperformance in high school physics? The ACT science section tests all major areas of science – not just life science, but also the physical sciences. A few years ago, I met with a group of high school physics teachers from schools in Chicago that enrolled many low income students. Their physics-taking rates were extraordinarily high, and a few of the schools represented in the meeting required physics for graduation. I asked the teachers how this had happened, and they all credited the Illinois state requirement that high school students take the ACT – including the science section – prior to graduation.
Illinois has not been alone in requiring the ACT for all high school students – a dozen states did so in 2014.
Nearly all of Florida’s high school graduates already take the ACT – 81% of the state’s grads took the exam in 2014. If we required the small remainder of the state’s high school students to take the exam at the end of their junior year, we could cancel Florida’s Biology 1 end-of-course exam and improve the state’s high school science instructional program at the same time. It’s an easy fix for a big problem with Florida’s science education effort.