By Vandeen A. Campbell, Ph.D.

Why does the sequencing of high school science courses matter? This essential question puts an emphasis not only on the combination of science courses taken in high school but also on the sequence of courses taken. As part of our project entitled, “What Science Course Pathways in High School Predict College Enrollment and Pursuing STEM Fields? Exploring Variations in New Jersey,” a primary concern is exploring different outcomes associated with starting high school in low-level science courses versus in standard and high-level science courses. The next step entails understanding implications: 1) for the level of courses subsequently taken, and 2) for later success.

The experiences and outcomes of the first year of high school have been shown to be strongly predictive of high school graduation and college enrollment. When freshmen earn sufficient credits to be on-track and pass core courses, the difference in graduation rates compared to those who do not can be well over 50 percentage points, even for students who entered high school in the top quartile of prior test scores. But a hypothesis in this study is that other aspects of freshman year can be important, in this case, as it relates to science pathways.

When students are placed into lower-level science courses freshman year, this could operate as tracking (a system in which students are typically divided into classes based on their overall or perceived educational ability or achievement) and in turn signal lower expectations which may then be internalized and define students’ academic self-concept and expectations. Indeed, adolescents’ expectations (and parents’) continuously adapt to signals sent from school institutional practices including course enrollment.

Importantly, expectations can adapt upwards when students are placed in a course exceeding middle school expectations. The courses students take that year might also determine the academic level of peers to which students have access, which can also influence academic self-concept and effort. We would expect that, in addition to school policies that would likely shape science course sequences based on where students start freshman year, where there is room for movement to a higher track, mechanisms of lowered expectations may thwart student effort and agency.

Our study of the distributions of science course-taking sequences across New Jersey and whether they predict postsecondary success is underway, beginning with development of the course sequence measures. Results will be available later this year.