Next Florida Senate President files bill to provide schools with incentives to push advanced math and science courses

The Florida Senate’s next President, Don Gaetz, has filed a bill titled the “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) High School Graduation Acceleration Act of 2012” that has two major provisions related to STEM education, one of which would provide incentives for high schools to push students to take advanced math and science courses.

Once the new graduation requirements enacted by the 2010 legislature are fully in effect, the graduation requirements will include Algebra 2, Biology 1 and “chemistry or physics.”  Gaetz’s bill, SB 1368, would award schools “bonus points” for students who take courses beyond those:

Beginning with the 2012-2013 school year, the Department of Education shall award bonus points to each high school based on the percentage of the school’s students who earn credits in mathematics and science in excess of the requirements in s. 1003.428(2)(a)2. and 3. The courses must be at a level of rigor that exceeds the course requirements in s. 1003.428(2)(a)2. and 3.

(Lines 466-472)

While the emphasis on additional math and science courses in high school is important and laudable, the above language leaves open the possibility that a school could be rewarded with bonus points if a student takes Biology 1, Chemistry 1, Anatomy and Physiology and Genetics, while avoiding physics.  Given the importance of physics in STEM degree preparation – as demonstrated in the research – rewarding this sort of academic program doesn’t make sense.

Instead, the legislation should be more specific, stating that bonus points should be awarded to a school only if the student’s additional courses come from a brief list that includes Chemistry 1, Physics 1, and AP Biology, Chemistry and Physics (or the AICE or IB equivalents).

In math, similar care should be taken.  Precalculus makes a student more “STEM-ready”, but “Mathematical Analysis” does not.  And since I’m hard core, I’ll say this:  In many cases, AP Statistics is simply an excuse for a student who wants to say she or he has taken an AP math class but who doesn’t want to take on an AP Calculus class.  I ask my students on the first day of class what their highest math courses were in high school.  The ones who say “AP Statistics” invariably have difficulties.  High schools should not earn bonus points for students who take AP Statistics.  The math classes that result in bonus points should be limited to Precalculus and the AP Calculus courses.

The data on the correlation between high school coursetaking in science and math and STEM bachelor’s degree attainment summarized from our old standby, Tyson et al., are shown below (yet again).

The second major provision related to STEM education requires that the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam be offered four times per year.  With a potential failure rate close to 50%, the desire of school districts for students to have many opportunities to pass the test is not a surprise.

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