News Release

State Outcomes in Math and Science Education Reveal Big Disparities

College Park, MD, July 1, 2011 — In a new ranking of how well the states' K-12 schools are preparing their students for science and engineering careers, Massachusetts leads the pack, while Mississippi trails behind as 'worst in the United States.' The rankings are reported in the summer issue of the Newsletter of the Forum on Education of the American Physical Society.

"We're not trying to criticize the states at the bottom," says Susan White of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), who developed the new Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI) with physicist Paul Cottle of Florida State University (FSU). "But states need to know how they're doing in order to improve."

Unlike other state rankings of science education that concentrate on making all students scientifically literate, the SERI uniquely focuses on the high school subjects that research says are most important to future scientists and engineers – physics and calculus. The SERI is calculated from publically available data, including Advanced Placement results, National Assessment of Educational Progress reports, teacher certification requirements by state, and data on high school physics class enrollment gathered by AIP. 

The final SERI score indicates, on a scale of 1 to 5, how each state measures up to others in physics and math education and teacher qualifications. Massachusetts easily bested all other states with a score of 4.82, while Mississippi came in at 1.11. Twenty-one states in total, including California, earned below or far below average scores, while only 10 states earned scores above the national average.

The rankings show that there are a small number of high-performers, but that most states are doing a poor job of preparing students to earn science or technology degrees, says Cottle, who notes that students in his own introductory physics classes at FSU face a high risk of doing poorly if they have not taken physics in high school. 

Physics education is important, says Cottle, not only because it prepares individual students to enter high-paying professions, but also because it is vital to maintaining U.S. economic competitiveness in growing fields, such as clean energy and biotechnology. In 2007, the National Academies released a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which examined the state of U.S. science and technology. The report concluded the United States is in danger of losing its technological edge, and recommended steps, such as improving K-12 science education, to help reverse worrying trends. Despite wide-spread support, a follow-up report, issued in 2010, found little progress had been made on the recommended steps. 

The SERI scores do not show how states' educational outcomes compare with international standards, but even Massachusetts would have a hard time competing with countries such as China or Singapore, Cottle says. He points to a study published in Science in 2009 that shows "yawning gaps" between the physics knowledge of U.S. college freshman and their Chinese counterparts, based on tests taken before the students received college-level physics instruction. 

Cottle says he hopes that the SERI scores serve as a wake-up call for policy makers who don't see physics as a necessary college prerequisite. "We are aiming to change that belief," he says. "If we are going to turn our economy around, we need to reemphasize technological innovation."

SERI Scores by State

Image credit: SERI data compiled by Statistical Research Center at AIP

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