Taking Algebra 1 in middle school is a giant step for a student toward a bachelor’s-level STEM career such as engineering or computer science. Students who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade and who follow a normal math sequence in high school end up in a calculus class during the senior year of high school, giving them a significant head start on the most lucrative college majors.
The importance of taking Algebra 1 in middle school for opening up lucrative career paths is why this year’s decline in Algebra 1 course-taking among Florida middle schoolers was so disturbing. The percentage of the state’s public school 8th graders taking the Algebra 1 end-of-course exam declined this year (15-16) to 26.3% from 29.4% in 14-15. The percentage of 7th graders taking Algebra 1 EOC declined from 9.0% in 14-15 to 8.4% in 15-16.
Florida’s school districts vary considerably in the way they place middle schoolers in Algebra 1. This spring, the top district for getting 8th graders into Algebra 1 was rural Liberty County, where two-thirds of the 8th graders took Algebra 1. Even though the district didn’t offer Algebra 1 to its 7th graders, the huge 8th grade Algebra 1-taking rate made Liberty Florida’s top district for getting middle schoolers into Algebra 1.
In the plot below, Florida’s school districts are ranked according to how well they enroll 7th and 8th graders in Algebra 1. The blue segment of each district’s bar represents the percentage of 7th graders who took the Algebra 1 EOC, and the red segment is the percentage of 8th graders taking that EOC. The plot ranks districts by the sum of those two percentages.
Two of the three districts that follow Liberty – Seminole and Brevard – are Florida’s traditional math and science superpowers. Megadistrict Orange County sneaks into third place, in between the two superpowers. Orange County has been successful at getting a large number of high school students into calculus classes, according to this January 2016 article in the Orlando Sentinel.
The rankings plot also demonstrates that demographics are not destiny when it comes to middle school Algebra 1. While Liberty, Seminole and Brevard Counties have free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rates below the state average, Orange County does not. And Florida’s only truly affluent school district, St. Johns County, is in 23rd place.
Leon County follows St. Johns County in 24th place.