A decade later and science education is still not important to Florida’s leaders

Friday was the big day! The results for the annual statewide education assessments were released. A press release from Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran’s office celebrated score increases in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies and Biology. He praised “awe-inspiring” teachers and he highlighted a new law that pushed all testing to later in the school year to allow for more instructional time and less testing time.


Did you notice anything missing? Yes, biology scores rose by two percentage points. That’s good. But … um … what about the rest of the science scores?

There are three science exams that public school students in Florida must take: the statewide science assessments in grades 5 and 8 and the high school biology end of course exam. Students have to score a level three or higher on the five point scale to pass. (See all the score reports at the DOE Assessments report page.) The 5th and 8th grade tests cover a variety of science topics, such as the nature of science, earth/space science, physical science and life science. The biology test is the only mandatory statewide science assessment given in high school.

Biology was worthy of mention in Corcoran’s press release because scores improved to their second highest level in eight years.

Biology End of Course
Statewide Percentage Passing (Level 3 or Above)
Spring 2018-2019: 67
Spring 2017-2018: 65
Spring 2016-2017: 63
Spring 2015-2016: 64
Spring 2014-2015: 65
Spring 2013-2014: 68
Spring 2012-2013: 67
Spring 2011-2012: 59

But 8th and 5th grade science results? They dropped by two percentage points each. Definitely not something Corcoran would want to crow about.

8th Grade Science Statewide Science Assessment
Statewide Percentage Passing (Level 3 or Above)
2019: 48*
2018: 50*
2017: 48*
2016: 48*
2015: 48
2014: 49
2013: 47
2012: 47

5th Grade Science Statewide Science Assessment
Statewide Percentage Passing (Level 3 or Above)
2019: 53
2018: 55
2017: 51
2016: 51
2015: 53
2014: 54
2013: 53
2012: 52

As I point out nearly every year, flip these numbers to get the real story. Instead of 48 percent passing the 8th grade test, reflect on the fact that 52 percent are not passing it. That means more than 101,700 8th grade students did not earn at least a level 3. Also, 8th graders haven’t broken past 50 percent in eight years.

The 5th graders are doing a bit better, but note how their passing scores are just hopelessly bouncing around with no consistent upward trend since the 2012 to 2014 streak.

However, a factor to take into consideration when analyzing the 5th and 8th grade science exams is that the results matter to the schools since their overall school grade takes the exams into account, but the tests have no real impact on the students. Elementary and middle school students face few consequences for failing the exam. So, why should the student take it seriously? Also consider the fact that the exams cover a wide range of topics learned over the course of several years. Is an 8th grader going to remember science topics taught in 6th grade?

Beside the consistently dismal state of 5th and 8th grade science scores, there are other worrying indicators that science education is not a subject that’s important to Florida’s elected and appointed officials.

One indicator: teacher shortages. The Florida Department of Education annually reports the subject areas experiencing critical teacher shortages. In this year’s report “Science-General” was ranked the number one critical shortage. The report stated that in the 2018-2019 school year there were 1,026 science courses across the state led by teachers without certification in the subjects. That may be at least partially attributed to the fact that the pool of potential science teachers is shrinking. Another FLDOE report shows that fewer people take science certification exams every year. For instance, the number of people taking the certification exam in Earth/Space Science plummeted from 231 in 2015 to 140 in 2018. And not all of those most recent 140 are ready for the classroom; a little more than a quarter of them failed the exam.


Another indicator is the evaporation of physics from schools’ course offerings across the state. Florida State University Physics Professor Paul Cottle dug through the data and found that in public high schools with at least 1,000 students, 36 of them did not offer physics at all. This is an increase over the previous year’s tally of 31. Unfortunately, this trend doesn’t worry some state lawmakers. A bill recently signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis allows students to substitute computer science credits for math and science credits that are required for high school graduation. Promoting computer science skills is worthwhile, but shouldn’t come at the cost of learning about the natural sciences. The governor flippantly dismissed physics when he said: “Other than trying to keep my kids from falling down the stairs in the Governor’s mansion I don’t know how much I deal with physics daily. You cannot live in our modern society without dealing with technology or computers in your daily life.”

I’m more discouraged today than usual. I spent time reviewing my blog posts about annual science assessments going all the way back to 2008. It’s been a dark cloud of bad news for over a decade now. I wrote op-eds about this issue in 2009 and 2017. Governors and commissioners have changed over the years, but my message has been unchanging and bleak. Sure, politicians love to pose for photo ops as they give lip service to one STEM initiative or another. But then they ignore the much larger issue of science literacy for all Florida students.

Our state and country grapples with problems such as rising seas, invasive species, the quality of our diminishing fresh water resources, and disease outbreaks, just to name a few issues that require a sound background in science to understand and solve. There are also job opportunities in space exploration. Boeing is moving its Space and Launch division headquarters from Virginia to Florida. SpaceX is launching – and landing – rockets here. NASA is testing the Orion spacecraft here. By the way, these high paying jobs require a physics education, Gov. DeSantis.

When will out state leaders start taking science education seriously?


(*)FDOE started a few years ago combining the 8th grade science assessment results with the results of 8th graders who instead took the Biology EOC. The combined statistic reported on most of the FDOE’s documents this year is 51 percent passing in 8th grade. But the pure Statewide Science Assessment – without including 8th grade biology results – has a passing percentage of only 48. I highlighted and questioned this data sleight of hand when I first noticed it a couple of years ago: DOE: Just fudge the results; no one cares about science anyway.

Additionally, it looks like the biology EOC report, which breaks down the performance of the various grade levels of students who took the test, includes 8th graders. Is the DOE using 8th graders’ biology scores twice in their statistics: once in the biology report and again in the 8th grade science assessment results?

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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