Precalculus in Florida’s high schools: Are your district’s students being prepared properly for 21st century careers?

With all the debate over what percentages of Florida students should be allowed to pass the state’s new FSA standardized exams, we keep forgetting why we are testing them in the first place.  The reason we test our students is to see if they are on track to have a full range of college and career options when they graduate from high school.  Or at least that should be the reason.

And in the modern economy, the best career options are those in the science and engineering fields.  Sure, not every student is cut out for a bachelor’s degree in engineering, physics or computer science.  If our educational system is doing its job properly, then every student in the top third of our high school graduating classes should have the preparation necessary to succeed in a college major in one of those fields.  And according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), that means students should have successfully completed courses in chemistry, physics and precalculus – and preferably calculus.

But what about the other two-thirds of students?  Most of those students have access (or should have access) to associate degree-level programs in engineering technology and programming, which yield starting salaries in the mid-$40,000’s.  They don’t need physics and precalculus, do they?  Think again:  Here’s the full text of the statement by the ASEE Board of Directors on the subject:

The ASEE Board endorses the recognition that academic preparation for high school students hoping to complete a college degree in engineering or engineering technology should include a full year each of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The year of mathematics should be at least to the pre-calculus level; a year of calculus is preferred. [Emphasis mine]

The ASEE Board included engineering technology in its statement.  That is, if we are preparing students for associate-level degrees in engineering technology – and we should be doing so for all students except those with significant learning disabilities – then that group needs chemistry, physics and precalculus.

Precalculus should not be a capstone math course given to a minority of students.  Instead, it should be the standard senior math course for the majority of Florida’s high school students.

At present, it’s not.  In the spring of 2015, 47,476 Florida public high school students were taking a precalculus course (Honors Precalculus, IB Precalculus, AICE AS Math, and dual enrollment college precalculus).  There were 189,459 12th graders.  So about only a quarter of Florida high school students presently graduate with precalculus.  Therefore, Florida is doing poorly even in just preparing students for associate degree-level STEM fields. (Kudos again to the Florida Department of Education for doing the best job in the nation in providing access to data like that used here.)

But what’s even more striking is that there is tremendous variation in the emphasis that Florida’s school districts put on getting students into Precalculus classes.  This remarkable variation is shown here in a ranking of the districts by Precalculus-taking rates, which we define to be the number of students enrolled last spring in the Precalculus class divided by the number of 12th graders:


Now consider this:  This ranking is topped not by the usual Florida math and science powerhouses like Brevard, Leon and Seminole Counties.  Instead, four of the top five districts are rural:  Glades, Hamilton, Taylor and Liberty.  Of course, there are plenty of rural counties at the bottom as well – Washington, Lafayette, Jefferson and Calhoun Counties did not have a single student enrolled in a precalculus course.

It’s worth noting that several Florida districts steer large numbers of students into trigonometry courses instead of precalculus courses, which generally include trigonometry as well as additional skills having to do with graphing functions on the xy plane and working with transcendental functions.  Most of the districts that steer large proportions of their students into trig courses are small – Calhoun, Gulf, Highlands, Holmes, Liberty, Monroe, and Washington.  Several of these districts dual enroll students in the college level Analytic Trigonometry course, which is only two credit hours and thus would be a very leisurely one-year high school course.

If Florida’s schools, students and parents are deciding that only a quarter of the state’s students should be taking Precalculus, then we can also conclude that three-quarters of the state’s students are not properly prepared for the 21st century economy.  And addressing that reality should be a high priority for the state’s school districts, no matter what the cut scores for the FSA math tests are.

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