High school education makes a difference, but not quite in the way I’d hoped or expected. A recent correlational study looked at the effects of more discipline-specific education at the high school level on grades in college. That is, if a student took heaps of physics as a high school student, how much will it help her in biology, chemistry, and physics? We’d expect that it should help the student perform better in college physics — she has a head start, after all — but one might naively hope that better mastery of a foundational science like physics would also help with chemistry and biology. On the other hand, perhaps bulking up on biology in high school wouldn’t help much at all with physics. Let’s look and find out!
The results are a little disappointing: there isn’t much of a cross-discipline effect at all. You might be a physics wiz in high school, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be floundering in college biology. Here’s the summary chart, which isn’t particularly well-designed, but you can puzzle out the meaning. They looked at performance in three college disciplines, biology, chemistry, and physics, and correlated it with how much high school biology (orange), chemistry (green), and physics (blue) that the students had taken.
Look at the first orange bar. That’s saying that students who had taken a year of biology in high school had a greater than a full grade point advantage over students who had taken no high school biology. A year of high school chemistry gave only a half-point boost in biology, while high school physics only nudged up biology scores a little bit. It’s not just that high school physics is worthless, either — look at the blue bar on the far right. High school physics was as effective at prepping students for college physics as high school biology was at prepping students for college biology. (The middle blue bar for college chemistry is a little troubling: more physics in high school hurts your grade in college chemistry. We shall console ourselves with the immensity of the error bars.)
Oh, and the gray bars in the graph? That’s math. Math is the #1 most effective preparation for doing well in all sciences, across the board; the more math you can get in high school, the better you’re going to do in any science class you might want to take. Look at those giant gray bars — it makes almost a 2-grade point difference to be all caught up in math before you start college. Parents, if you want your kids to be doctors or rocket scientists, the best thing you can do is make sure they take calculus in high school. Please. Failing to do so doesn’t mean your kid is doomed, but I can see it in the classroom, that students who don’t have the math background have to work twice as hard to keep up as the students who sail in with calculus already under their belt.
Sadler PM, Tai RH (2007) The Two High-School Pillars Supporting College Science. Science 317(5837)457-458.