What percentage of Florida’s students are on track for 21st century career options? Isn’t that the question the FSA should be answering?

Commissioner Stewart’s recommendation that between 50% and 60% of Florida’s students pass the FSA math exams (except for 8th grade – ignore that for now and I’ll get back to it) has set her up for a confrontation with Jeb Bush’s education foundation and some State Board of Education members, who believe that the percentage of students who pass the exams should be closer to the 30-40% range.  That latter range corresponds to the percentages of Florida students deemed “proficient” on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

If it were up to me, I’d ask a different question:  What percentage of Florida’s students are on track to have a full range of college and career options when they graduate from high school?  In answering this question, let’s not just focus on the students who should be prepared to successfully pursue bachelors’ degrees in engineering, physical sciences and computer science – and the entire top third of high school students should be prepared for these options.  Instead, let’s broaden our view on this:  What percentage of high school graduates are prepared to be successful in an associate degree program in engineering technology?  Students who graduate from such programs earn starting salaries in the $40,000’s (which most state university system grads can only dream of).

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the proper high school preparation for an associate degree program in engineering technology includes a Precalculus course (as well as chemistry and physics, but I’m writing about math today).  If Florida’s K-12 schools were running on all cylinders, two-thirds of high school grads would be properly prepared to pursue an associate degree in engineering technology – and that would mean that two-thirds of Florida’s high school grads would have taken Precalculus.

What’s the actual percentage of Florida high school grads who have taken Precalculus?  To estimate that, we divided the number of students enrolled in a Precalculus course in the Spring 2015 by the number of 12th graders at that time.  And the answer was (wait for it) 25%.  To put on my Captain Obvious (@CaptainObvious on Twitter) hat for a moment:  25% is not close to two-thirds.

So what should policy-makers (which in this case is the State Board of Education) do about FSA cut scores?  For the moment, let’s set aside the technical problems that I believe have undermined the process used by the Florida Department of Education to recommend cut scores to the Board.  By my reckoning, teachers, parents and students (who collectively decide who takes Precalculus) believe that only 25% of high school graduates are properly prepared for an associate degree program in engineering technology.  If passing the FSA math exam means that a student is on track for such a program, then passing 50% of 6th and 7th graders – as Commissioner Stewart is recommending – probably doesn’t make any sense.  In this context, the NAEP result that only 31% of Florida 8th graders are proficient in math starts to seem like a more reasonable FSA passing rate for Florida’s middle school students.

Back to the 8th grade FSA math exam:  Close to one-third of Florida’s 8th graders take Algebra 1 (30.4% of Algebra 1 end-of-course exam-takers in Spring 2014 were 8th graders), and a smaller percentage takes Geometry (7.2% of Geometry end-of-course exam-takers in Spring 2014 were 8th graders).  These students take the end-of-course exams for those subjects and do not take the 8th grade math FSA.  So more than one-third of 8th graders – and that’s the strongest one-third – do not take the 8th grade math FSA.  Therefore, the passing rate on that test should be lower than the 6th and 7th grade exams.

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