Florida is doing significantly better in elementary and middle school science, says a national exam. What’s the next step for building the state’s STEM career preparation pipeline?

There was good news for Florida’s students and parents last week:  The state has made significant improvements in student achievement in elementary and middle school science, according to the results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released last week.

In 2009, the last time the Grade 4 NAEP Science Assessment was administered, only 32% of Florida’s 4th graders were rated proficient or better – a little lower than the national rate.  In 2015, that situation was reversed.  Florida’s 42% rate for proficient or better was significantly higher than the national rate of 38%.  It is a startling turnaround.

The results for Florida’s 8th graders were not quite as dramatic, but still encouraging.  In 2015, Florida’s proficient-or-better rate was 33%, approximately equal to the national rate of 34%.  That’s a much better performance than Florida had seen previously, with the state being significantly below the national rate in both the 2011 and 2009 administrations (only the 8th grade science assessment was administered in 2011).

These results are illustrated below.  The Orlando Sentinel article on Florida’s NAEP Science results is here.

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So what’s next for Florida?

To properly prepare students so that they have the option of choosing lucrative college majors in engineering, the physical sciences, computing and health professions, the math and science pipeline that begins in elementary school (or before) must be robust all the way through high school.  The new Grade 4 NAEP science results and the previously released 2015 Grade 4 NAEP math results show that the elementary level math and science programs are in pretty good shape in Florida – at least when compared to the national averages.

But despite the passable 8th grade science results released last week, there is deep trouble at the middle school level.  Florida’s 2015 Grade 8 NAEP math results revealed a meltdown in the state’s middle school math program, and there has been no real acknowledgement of the problem by the state’s educational leaders, much less the adoption of a strategy to address the situation.

At the high school level, one of the best indicators we have of the strength of the state’s STEM career preparation program is the statistics on AP exam-taking and exam passing in the STEM subjects.  The 2016 state-by-state results for AP exams will be released soon, but the 2015 results reveal an interesting paradox in Florida.  The state has implemented a program of financial incentives for schools and teachers for when their students pass AP exams, and those incentives have helped propel the state to a national leadership position in metrics like AP participation rate and the percentage of the state’s students that pass at least one AP exam.

But a careful look at Florida’s AP results reveals this:  The state is a national AP leader in the social sciences, English and foreign languages (particularly Spanish).  But in AP calculus, statistics, science and computing the state is only average.  Florida’s AP incentives have driven teachers, administrators and students to the path of least resistance, which is not STEM.

There are other indicators of the health of Florida’s high school level program to prepare students for STEM careers, of course.  The state’s high school physics enrollment rate is only a bit more than half the national rateACT scores in math and science are weak.

Strong professional development programs in elementary math and science and in middle school science have improved student achievement in those sections of the STEM career pipeline.  But perhaps the most difficult work lies ahead.  To be effective, a middle school math teacher has to be strong at math herself (or himself).  The same can be said for high school math and science teachers, of course.  And that means turning the state’s efforts to the task of recruiting many more strong teachers in those subjects than it presently has.  Florida hasn’t even begun to address that challenge.

Michael Marder, the Unversity of Texas-Austin physics professor who founded the UTeach science and math teacher preparation program, recently wrote a commentary for Education Week in which he argued that the nation’s “permanent crisis” in STEM education will continue until a substantial financial commitment is made to attracting and retaining the highest quality math and science teachers.  Thirty-three years removed from the landmark federal report “A Nation at Risk”, the nation hasn’t even given serious thought to tackling this challenge.

But perhaps Florida’s moment to shine is coming.  There is a growing consensus – including members of the State Board of Education, the Florida Department of Education leadership and the incoming Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives (see the Orlando Sentinel article here) – that the state’s $49 million expenditure this year on the simply weird Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program should be redirected next year to addressing the state’s teacher supply issues in a more rational way.  A proposal for doing this will soon be presented to the Board.  It’s a glimmer of hope in the face of a daunting task.

 

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