Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program: Require high school courses in Precalculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Computer Programming instead of a test score

Florida’s leaders have raised test score requirements for the state’s Bright Futures Scholarship Program in an effort to rein in expenditures on the program.  Beginning this fall, the higher level Florida Medallion Scholars award requires an SAT score of 1170 (or an ACT score of 26), compared to the SAT score of 970 (or the ACT score of 20) required only three years before.  The increase is having a disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic students, and the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education has revived an investigation into whether the testing requirement results in racial discrimination.  (See the March 24 article from the Miami Herald here)

Perhaps the controversy should cause our state’s policy-makers to rethink the purpose of the Bright Futures program.  If it is really a state priority to graduate more students with bachelors’ degrees in science, engineering and computer science, then Bright Futures should be recast to incentivize students to prepare for these fields in high school.  The troublesome testing requirement could be replaced with a requirement that students take the courses necessary to be well-prepared for science, engineering and computer science majors.  By doing this, we would remove the appearance of racial bias from the program and steer students from all racial and socioeconomic groups toward the most economically attractive careers.

What does it take to prepare for these college majors?  Let’s start with math.  I’d personally like to see every student graduate high school with the equivalent of a college Calculus 1 course.  The most popular way of doing this is through passing the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam – presumably after taking the year-long Calculus AB course.  But perhaps a Bright Futures requirement for a calculus course would be too ambitious.  Calculus AB is two steps above the present math requirement for the state’s Scholar high school diploma designation, which is Algebra 2 and statistics or an equivalent course.  Inexplicably, Precalculus is not required for the Scholar diploma designation.  That should be changed, but let’s say the Bright Futures math requirement should be Precalculus.  Having Precalculus and not having Calculus 1 credit coming out of high school leaves an incoming engineering or physics major one semester behind on the first day of college, but that can be made up by attending school during the summer following the first year.

What about science?  Florida’s K-12 system has a strong emotional attachment to biology, even though life science careers are problematic from an economic point of view.  So no one will ever graduate from a Florida high school without a biology credit, and biology has to be in the list of science courses required for a Bright Futures scholarship.  But every incoming student in the physical sciences and engineering must have a strong background in chemistry and physics, so those subjects should also be required for Bright Futures scholarships.  The arrival of the new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses in Florida’s classrooms this coming year should make a Bright Futures physics requirement more palatable for students who would prefer to avoid the subject out of fear or distaste.

Every high school grad – and certainly every student receiving a Bright Futures scholarship – should have some computer programming experience.  It’s obvious that a computer science major needs to know how to program.  But of course physical science and engineering majors also need skill in programming.  A computer programming course should be required for a Bright Futures scholarship.

My proposal is to replace the test score requirement for Bright Futures with a course-taking requirement that includes Precalculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Computer Programming.  Would this be a loss of rigor over an 1170 SAT requirement?  I dare anyone to tell me that it would be.  And this course requirement would put pressure on districts to make these courses available to students in all high schools.

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