It’s Groundhog Day in the Florida Legislature for those trying to use the state’s statutes to nudge more high school students into taking courses in computing. Legislators have once again filed bills to allow high school computing courses to substitute for college admissions requirements in foreign language, math and science.
Perhaps it’s time to try something different – allowing students to take the most attractive and accessible high school computing course ever developed as a substitute for Biology 1, Florida’s only specific graduation requirement in science and the biggest science education policy error the state has made in the last decade.
Senator Brandes has once again filed a proposal to allow high school courses in computing to substitute for foreign language classes in the admissions requirements for Florida’s public colleges and universities. The proposal has been filed as legislation for the last several sessions and has attracted furious opposition every time.
Representative Porter has again filed her proposal to substitute high school computing courses for math and science courses in public college and university admissions requirements. It is already common for students to be admitted to my institution without a math course any higher than Algebra 2. We still admit students without a chemistry course, and even some of our engineering majors (and about half of our chemistry and bioscience majors) arrive without a physics course. Representative Porter’s proposal would only make things worse – and likely reduce the number of students who can be successful in earning a bachelor of science degree in computer science (which at FSU and elsewhere requires calculus and physics).
Playing off 21st century skills like foreign language, the physical sciences and computing against each other never made any sense. It still doesn’t.
So if we insist on sacrificing some component of a Florida high school education to incentivize a course on computing, what should it be?
I nominate Biology 1 – the only science course specifically designated as a graduation requirement in Florida – and its end-of-course exam. Florida should allow students to substitute the year-old AP Computer Science Principles course to substitute for Biology 1.
With a good teacher, Biology 1 can be an excellent science learning experience. But for too many students, the course can become an exercise in memorization – like memorizing the steps in the Krebs Cycle without having any concept of what it means to transfer energy into a cell.
The Biology 1 end of course exam – which students must take and which is counted as 30% of the final grade – doesn’t help. In 2012, I was a member of a Florida Department of Education panel that reviewed several of the state’s standardized tests, including the Biology end-of-course exam. During the discussion, an engineer sitting next to me argued that it wasn’t a science test at all – that it was simply a reading test that focused on readings about biology. He said that he could have passed the test even though it had been years since he remembered any biology.
AP Computer Science Principles was introduced by the College Board in the fall of 2016 as a means of attracting a broader audience of high school students to computing. More than 33,000 students nationwide took the course’s exam in May – an extraordinary number for the course’s first year.
The Biology 1 requirement is a holdover from a time fifteen years ago when we believed that bioscience was going to be the future of Florida’s economy. Now we seem to believe that information technology – and having a plentiful supply of professionals in that field – will be the foundation of the state’s future economic growth. If that is true, then we should move the state’s high schools away from the biology requirement and toward an information technology requirement.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that every student be required to take AP Computer Science Principles. I am only arguing that students should be allowed to take this computing course as a substitute for the Biology course. We wouldn’t need enough computer programming teachers to teach every Florida student – only enough to meet the demand, which would be modest at first.
Now for federal accountability requirements: We are often told that federal law requires that every high school student take a statewide standardized test in science. This is true. But not every student has to take the same standardized test. Massachusetts – the nation’s leading state for K-12 math and science – requires its students to pass one of four science tests. (They are in biology, chemistry, introductory physics and engineering/technology)
And it’s worth mentioning that the present leadership of the US Department of Education seems to want to give states more flexibility and not less – as long as they meet the minimum requirements of ESSA.
If our policy-makers are serious about equipping more high school students for the STEM economy, they will stop being anchored to the mistakes of the past. Allowing students to substitute AP Computer Science Principles for Biology 1 as a graduation requirement is one way of doing so.