Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia have found that high school coursework in one of the sciences generally does not predict better college performance in other scientific disciplines. But there's one notable exception: Students with the most rigorous high school preparation in mathematics perform significantly better in college courses in biology, chemistry, and physics.
Authors Philip M. Sadler of Harvard and Robert H. Tai of Virginia say the findings run counter to the claims of an educational movement called "Physics First," which argues that physics underlies biology and chemistry, and therefore the traditional order of high school science education -- biology, chemistry, physics -- should be reversed.
"Many arguments have been made for chemistry and physics preparation to benefit the learning of biology," says Tai, an assistant professor in Virginia's Curry School of Education. "On the scale of single cells, many processes are physical, such as neurons 'firing' electrically. Also, the complex molecules at the root of life obey chemical laws that are manifested in macroscopic processes. Yet our analysis provides no support for the argument that physics and chemistry principles are inherently beneficial to the study of biology at the introductory level."
[T]he controlled data indicated that high school preparation in any of the scientific disciplines -- biology, chemistry, or physics -- boosted college performance in the same subject. Also, students with the most coursework in high school mathematics performed strikingly better in their introductory biology and chemistry courses in college; introductory college-level physics performance also benefited. Conversely, little correlation was seen between the amount of high school coursework in biology, chemistry, or physics and college performance in any of the other disciplines in this trio.
"The link between math and biology is not exactly an intuitive one, but biology has become an increasingly quantitative discipline," Sadler says. "Many high school students are now performing statistical analysis of genetic outcomes in addition to dissecting frogs and studying cells under a microscope."
The current order of high school science education was established in the 1890s, in an attempt to standardize what was then a system of wildly disparate science education in high schools across the U.S. Biology was given primacy in that ordering in part because the late 19th century experienced a flowering of interest in the natural world, and also because it was perceived to be less daunting intellectually than either chemistry or physics.
This has been my operating assumption throughout the past 3 years off reteaching & preteaching math to C.
Math is key.
I assume this new publication is drawn from the same Sandler/Tai survey finding that only solid math achievement in high school, not AP science courses, predicts success in college science:
Mathematical fluency is the single best predictor of college performance in biology, chemistry, and physics, giving a strong advantage to students whose high school science courses integrate mathematics. "Draining the math out of high school coursework does students a disservice," Sadler says. "Much of college biology, chemistry, and physics are taught using the language of math, so students without fluency quickly become lost."
Last but not least, here's what the famous Toolbox study has to say about math and college completion rates:
The highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key marker in precollegiate momentum, with the tipping point of momentum toward a bachelor's degree now firmly above Algebra 2. But in order for that momentum to pay off, earning credits in truly college-level mathematics on the postsecondary side is de rigeur. The world has gone quantitative: business, geography, criminal justice, history, allied health fields—a full range of disciplines and job tasks tells students why math requirements are not just some abstract school exercise. By the end of the second calendar year of enrollment, the gap in credit generation in college-level mathematics between those who eventually earned bachelor's degrees and those who didn't is 71 to 38 percent (table 21). In a previous study, the author found the same magnitude of disparity among community college students in relation to earning a terminal associate degree (Adelman 2005a).
My goal: C. needs to be able to take college courses in math after he graduates high school.
The math department doesn't seem to share this goal, judging by the chair's reaction the one and only time I raised it with her.
Me: "Christopher needs to be able to take math in college. That's our family goal."
Math chair: "He needs to take math to graduate high school."
End of discussion.