Dear Governor Scott: Give more students access to STEM careers by raising the bar on the FSA math exam

Governor Scott has not yet publicly weighed in on the controversy over how tough to grade the state’s new Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) for elementary, middle and high school students.

The decision on how high to set the bar for passing the FSA exams in math and English will be made by the State Board of Education in January. Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart has recommended to the Board that passing the FSA exams should be about as difficult as passing previous years’ exams.

In contrast, several members of the Board have already argued in public that it should be considerably tougher to pass the FSA exams so that students and teachers will strive for higher levels of achievement.

In thinking about this issue, Governor Scott should consider a letter he sent to professors like me at all of Florida’s public universities a few weeks ago. In announcing a new award for young entrepreneurs, the governor thanked faculty members for “helping Florida’s students earn degrees that prepare them for jobs”. Governor Scott also asked those of us on university faculties to keep him apprised of “any ideas you have to make our colleges and universities even greater and to connect our students with jobs”.

Well, Governor, I have an idea: Support the State Board of Education members who want to make it tougher to pass the FSA math exams. As you know, Governor, most of the best jobs in the new economy are in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. All of these jobs require considerable mathematical skill. It even takes strong mathematical skills to earn the two-year associate of applied science degrees in fields like engineering technology that lead to starting salaries above $40,000 per year. And we should hope that most if not all of Florida’s students can have access to these degrees and careers.

How is Florida doing in preparing K-12 students for careers like this? Not well. Only a quarter of Florida’s high school grads have the mathematical background that the American Society for Engineering Education says is required to be well-prepared for associate degree programs in engineering technology to which all of our students – and not just the top quartile – should have access.

In fact, the situation is even worse for Florida’s black students. Black students are earning a smaller share of the State University System’s bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering than they were a decade ago. For example, in 2013-14 only 6.9% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were earned by black students, compared to 11.0% in 2004-05.

In short, Florida’s effort to prepare students for STEM careers – an effort that begins in elementary school – is failing. And it is failing our black students most of all. What we are doing is not working. Something needs to change.

Governor Scott, you can get the ball rolling by raising the bar on the FSA math exams and then providing Florida students with the resources they need to clear the higher bar. Send more students who are strong in math to our colleges and universities, and those of us who work at these institutions to prepare students for lucrative STEM careers will look for ways to do a better job, too.

Together we can make Florida a better place to learn and grow.

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