“The big unpleasant surprise is that so few states are doing a good job,” says Paul Cottle, a physicist at Florida State University, referring to the readiness of high school graduates for college study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). With Susan White of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics (AIP), Cottle created the Science and Engineering Readiness Index.

The SERI is based on information that is easily accessible online, including teacher-certification requirements and findings from Advanced Placement physics and calculus tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and surveys carried out by AIP. Massachusetts ranks highest by a long shot; Mississippi has the lowest ranking (see map, below).

The SERI is different from other state-by-state comparisons because it is quantitative and focuses on physics, says Cottle. “When these sorts of analyses are done by outside organizations, they tend to focus on science as...

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