I recently shared with a group of educators a story I had heard about a rising senior high school student who was ranked second in her class and who intended to apply to one of the nation’s elite science and engineering universities. She had intended to take her first physics class during her senior year, but a few mentors told her to drop physics because by taking it she would be putting her chances of being the class salutatorian at risk. Of course, the student would have killed her chances of admission to her dream school if she had taken the mentors’ advice, and fortunately a teacher convinced the student to stay enrolled for physics. The story was well-received by most of my audience but not so well by a few other members of my audience. Those unhappy few recognized themselves as the mentors in the story.
When we urge parents to push their kids to high levels of achievement in math and science as a way of preparing for the economy their kids will be facing, we are often told that the parents were quite successful without taking physics, or taking calculus or even precalculus. Why should their kids be pushed to take those courses? After all, their kids really just want to be writers or psychologists or work in the hospitality industry or sell insurance or real estate or study marine biology like they did. The problem is, of course, that if the children of the parents in those occupations try to follow in their parents’ professional footsteps, it is unlikely the children will be nearly as economically successful as their parents were because of changes in the economy. The world is a much different place than it was in 1990.
In case you were wondering, telling parents this is not a great way to make lots of friends. You should trust me on this. I once told a group of students and parents that no college student should major in biology because the employment prospects for bachelor degree holders in biology were relatively poor. One of the parents was the spouse of a biology professor. I wasn’t invited back.
Which brings us to the quandary in which Florida’s State Board of Education finds itself. Commissioner Stewart has recommended that the Board adopt a scoring system for the state’s new FSA exams that would pass about the same percentages of students that have passed state exams in the past. The release of the 2015 NAEP results threw a wrench into the Commissioner’s recommendation because it showed that the achievement level of Florida’s middle school students in math had declined significantly. Given this, the Commissioner’s status quo recommendation for the middle grades math exams made no sense – they should at least have reflected the decline in middle school math achievement documented by the NAEP results.
But several speakers at the Board’s tumultuous meeting last Wednesday urged the Board to go much farther and to push Florida’s students and educators harder by making the passing rates on the FSA exams equal to the percentages of Florida students shown to be proficient in math and reading on the 2015 NAEP assessments. While the Commissioner is recommending that between 50% and 60% of students pass most FSA exams (depending on grade level and subject), the percentages of Florida students deemed “proficient” on the 2015 NAEP exam range from a high of 42% on the 4th grade math exam to a low of 26% on the 8th grade math exam. That is to say, if the SBOE adopts the NAEP proficiency rates as its FSA passing rates, there will be considerably more bloodletting than the Commissioner is recommending. And the Commissioner understands how unpopular that will be. The Board members seem to have a handle on that as well.
It is possible to push passing rates on statewide exams too low. New York State pushed the passing rates on some of its statewide exams down into the 20’s several years ago and the resulting parental rebellion made New York State the nation’s opt-out capital. That was an error of governance.
The Florida SBOE must find the “sweet spot” for FSA grades – not too soft, and not too hard, but just right. It seems clear that the Commissioner’s recommendations are too soft to be justified. But would driving FSA passing rates on middle school math down below 30% do any good? I personally have a pretty robust tolerance for being unpopular (check out my Rate My Professors page), but even I know that it is possible to be too unpopular, at least when it comes to public policy.