Does the Florida Legislature have a golden opportunity to improve Bright Futures?

Two Republican legislators – Senator Anitere Flores and Representative Jeannette Nunez – have filed bills (SB 1546 and HB 1275) proposing to partially reverse the recently legislated increases in minimum SAT and ACT scores for Bright Futures scholarships and instead raise minimum high school GPA requirements.

It’s gratifying that these legislators have recognized the disproportionate impact the increases of the minimum test scores have on black and Hispanic students.

But the proposed increase in the minimum high school GPA could harm the effort to improve high school students’ preparation for STEM careers.

Several years back, legislators decided to raise the test scores required for two Bright Futures scholarship programs in order to rein in the cost of the programs.  The minimum SAT score for the lower level program, called Medallion Scholars, was raised from 970 to 1170.  And the minimum score for the higher level award, the Academic Scholars program, was raised from 1250 to 1290.

The increases disproportionately impacted black and Hispanic students, causing the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education to look investigate.  That investigation did not result in any action, but it was a wake-up call.

The bill filed by Flores would partially reverse the increases in the minimum scores.  For the Medallion Scholars program, the minimum SAT score would be set to 1090.  The minimum for the Academic Scholars program would be rolled back to 1250.  Nunez’s bill would also partially roll back the increases, but would reset the Medallion Scholars minimum to 1050 and the Academic Scholars minimum to 1280.

However, the bills would compensate for the perceived loss of rigor in the Bright Futures selection process by increasing the minimum weighted high school GPA’s for the two programs.   Both bills would raise the minimum for the Medallion Scholars program from 3.0 to 3.3 and the minimum for the Academic Scholars program from 3.5 to 3.7.

Increasing the minimum GPA’s for the two programs is a bad idea because it could negatively impact high school students’ preparation for college majors in STEM fields.

Students perceive the higher level math and science courses necessary to prepare for STEM careers to be difficult, and to carry the risk of earning poor grades.  Students who are worried about meeting the new higher GPA requirements for Bright Futures might be less willing to take a precalculus or calculus course, or a course in chemistry or physics.  Those courses are critically important for preparing for college majors in STEM fields.

If legislators want to raise the bar for Bright Futures without negatively impacting students’ STEM preparation, they should simply leave the GPA requirements where they are presently, and instead require that students take precalculus, chemistry, and physics to be eligible.  I proposed something close to this last September.

Bright Futures reform is a minefield of unintended consequences.  Legislators should be careful where they step.

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