Honors Calculus should be banned from Florida’s high school classrooms

During the school year that is ending now, 14,040 students in Florida’s public high schools took Advanced Placement Calculus AB, the first AP calculus course, according to the Florida Department of Education.  Based on past results, we can estimate that about half of those students passed the exam for that course a few weeks ago and earned Calculus 1 credit in Florida’s public colleges and universities.  AP Calculus AB is an excellent launching pad for college majors in engineering and the physical sciences, and every student who takes Algebra 1 in middle school should take AP Calculus AB during either the junior or senior year of high school (unless the student skips AP Calculus AB to go directly to AP Calculus BC, as one of my three children did).

About 35% of Florida’s public school students pass the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam in middle school, but only about 4% of Florida’s high school graduates have passed AP Calculus AB.  In some sense, middle school Algebra 1 is the entry point for the pipeline to science and engineering careers.  The fact that the flow through this pipeline drops from 35% at the entry point to 4% by the end of high school is very disturbing.  There are multiple causes for this leakage, but here is one that I’ve learned about recently – a high school course called Honors Calculus.

This year, 3,943 Florida students were enrolled in Honors Calculus – not a huge number but not insignificant, either.  From conversations I’ve had about this course with individual parents and students, I’ve concluded that teachers who decide for some reason that a student is too weak to succeed in AP Calculus AB advise such a student to take Honors Calculus instead.

Here is what happens to a student who enters one of Florida’s public universities and who wants to be an engineer, physicist or meteorologist and who has taken Honors Calculus in high school instead of AP Calculus AB:  A student who has a passing score on AP Calculus AB (3 or better) receives credit for Calculus 1 and is able to enroll in Calculus 2 in her or his first semester.  A student who takes Honors Calculus instead is often required to start with college courses called Precalculus and Analytic Trigonometry in the first semester.  This student doesn’t take Calculus 1 until the second semester.  In other words, a student who is shunted into Honors Calculus instead of AP Calculus AB in high school often ends up a college year behind the student who is allowed to take AP Calculus AB instead.

Of course, it is possible that the Honors Calculus student wouldn’t have succeeded in AP Calculus AB – that is, she or he wouldn’t have passed the exam.  But Florida’s pass rate on AP Calculus AB is only 50%, anyway.  If we abolished Honors Calculus and put these students into AP Calculus AB instead, that pass rate might decrease to, say, 40%.  But some of those students who would have been relegated to Honors Calculus will pass the AP Calculus AB exam and save the time and expense of a year of college math courses.  That is a big upside.

Honors Calculus should be abolished from Florida’s classrooms.  Students who pass Precalculus in the junior year of high school or before should take AP Calculus AB the following year.  Period.

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