Some districts divert too many students from the science and engineering pipeline course Precalculus

Paul Simon sang that there must be fifty ways to leave your lover.

I haven’t been able to find fifty ways that students are convinced to leave the proper high school math course progression after Algebra 2 by not taking Precalculus. But I’ve found five, and that’s five too many. And about a dozen Florida school districts are using those five way too often.

Of course, the optimum high school math sequence is Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus, and then AP Calculus AB, or the IB or AICE equivalents.

The problem is that only about a quarter of Florida’s high school students take Precaclulus, which is a course that is necessary even for associate degree-level college programs like engineering technology. Instead, students who complete Algebra 2 are often diverted into courses like “Advanced Topics in Mathematics”, “Math Analysis”, “Analysis of Functions”, “Trigonometry” (which includes Honors Trigonometry and the dual enrollment course “Analytic Trigonometry”), and the dual enrollment course “College Algebra”. While 47,000 Florida high school students took Precalculus in the 2014-15 school year, another 33,000 took these courses that are used to divert students from Precalculus. The students who are diverted are usually those that for one reason or another are not considered “strong enough” to continue on to Precalculus from Algebra 2. (All statistics quoted here come from the marvelously transparent Florida Department of Education web site)

The course now most commonly used to divert students from Precalculus is “Advanced Topics in Mathematics” which was taken by 16,000 students in 2014-15. This course is labeled as a “Liberal Arts Mathematics” course by the Florida Department of Education, making clear its purpose – to remove students from the science and engineering pipeline.

Which districts make the greatest use of “Precalculus diversion courses”? Rural Gulf County makes the greatest use of trigonometry as a diversion course, Hardee and Indian River Counties make the greatest use of “Advanced Topics in Mathematics”, Hendry County is the heaviest user of “Math Analysis”, and math and science powerhouse Seminole County makes the greatest use of “Analysis of Functions”. But it’s also worth noting that Seminole County has one of the highest Precalculus-taking rates in Florida.

Dual enrollment College Algebra has a distinguished history as a dead-end Precalculus diversion course. However, College Algebra enrollment by Florida high school students dropped by about half from 2013-14 to 2014-15 – likely because community colleges were recently forced by the Legislature to start charging school districts tuition for dual enrollment courses. However, rural counties Dixie and Lafayette Counties still make heavy use of this diversion option.

Overall, Indian River County is the biggest user of Precalculus diversion courses, as the graph below shows. This is a graph of diversion course-taking rates – that is, the number of students enrolled in the five diversion courses listed above divided by the number of 12th graders.

diversion_numbers

Math and science powerhouses Leon, Seminole and Brevard also make heavy use of diversion courses. So are these districts improperly using these courses? That’s the question that the next graph attempts to answer. It subtracts a district’s precalculus-taking rate from the district’s diversion course-taking rate.

diversion_difference

Leon, Seminole and Brevard are all near zero in this plot, reflecting the fact that while they steer many students into Precalculus diversion courses, they also have large numbers of students (near or above 30%) taking Precalculus.

But Indian River doesn’t have any such excuse. Indian River’s Precalculus-taking rate is 19%, below the state rate of 25%. It’s clear that too many students are diverted from taking Precalculus in Indian River County.

Most of the other districts high up in the 2nd plot are rural counties. One notable exception is Monroe County, which is generally a good performer in upper level math and science courses in high school.

So what should be done by those districts at the top of the second plot – those that are diverting more students away from Precalculus than steering them into Precalculus? Well, they certainly shouldn’t slip out the back, Jack. They need to make a new plan, Stan.

And no, I’m not being coy, Roy.

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