To have the clearest path to a bachelor degree-level STEM career, a student must take Algebra 1 by 8th grade.
So it’s a bit alarming that the percentage of middle school students taking Algebra 1 in Florida’s public schools in the school year that just ended (2015-16) is significantly lower than it was in 2014-15.
Students can begin a lucrative college STEM major like engineering, math, computer science or physics with a leg up if they successfully complete a calculus course like AP Calculus AB during the senior year of high school. But to get to that calculus class in the senior year of high school, a student must complete Algebra 1 in middle school, according to the standard Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus math sequence.
Unfortunately, the percentage of Florida public school 8th graders who took Algebra 1 (and therefore took the statewide Algebra 1 end-of-course exam) was only 26.3% in 2015-16, compared to 29.4% in 2014-15. In 2015-16, only 22.6% of 8th graders passed the Algebra 1 exam, compared to 23.6% in 2014-15. (Exam results are available at the FLDOE FSA web page. The number of 8th graders in Florida’s public schools is available here.)
The decline in 8th grade Algebra 1 participation isn’t happening because more students are taking Algebra 1 in 7th grade. In fact, the percentages of Florida 7th graders taking and passing the Algebra 1 EOC declined this year as well.
In short, Florida’s public schools are enrolling fewer middle school students in Algebra 1.
While it isn’t clear why school districts are choosing to cut their middle school Algebra 1 enrollments, it’s likely that the Algebra 1 enrollment decline is the cause of one apparent bright spot in the FSA math results – the rise in the passing rate on the FSA 8th grade math test, which climbed from 45% in 2014-15 to 48% in 2015-16. Florida law prohibits 8th graders from taking both the Algebra 1 EOC and the FSA math test. With a group of students who would have been good enough to take Algebra 1 in 2014-15 no longer welcome in the course this year, these relatively strong math students – about 3% of all 8th graders – took the FSA math instead. It’s likely these students passed the FSA math exam, pushing up the statewide passing rate even if the overall proficiency rate of the state’s 8th graders did not improve at all.
The gentle reader might recall that the bottom fell out of Florida’s 8th grade math proficiency rate on the 2015 NAEP assessment, leaving the state near the bottom of the nation. At first glance, it might have looked like this year’s FSA 8th grade math result showed some improvement from that sorry state. But alas, it doesn’t.