A student who does well in a high school Algebra 2 course, sails through Florida’s Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) math section and then crushes the lowest level “college” math course – College Algebra – has a path to earning an Associate in Science degree in a STEM field and entry to the middle class (or above). Students who earn such degrees in Florida College System institutions outearn the average State University System grad with lots of room to spare.
So for Florida’s school districts, it should be (and in many cases is) a high priority to get as many high school students in the middle third and below through Algebra 2. The state’s end-of-course exam in Algebra 2 has been a particular bugaboo, with a passing rate of 40%. Nevertheless, it is important for a school district not to raise its Algebra 2 EOC passing rate by diverting students away from Algebra 2. The annual figure of merit for Algebra 2 is the percentage of students in the high school who pass the Algebra 2 EOC, and this spring that number ranged from near 13% in Martin, St. Johns and Lafayette Counties down to as low as 2% in several rural counties (pay no attention to this spring’s results in Orange County – they were busy adjusting their math progression). If every student in a high school were passing the Algebra 2 EOC, that number would be in the vicinity of 25%.
So while many students take Algebra 2 and do not pass the EOC, many other students never take Algebra 2 at all. Instead, they are steered into alternate courses. Below, I show a math progression map from the curriculum guide at Seminole County’s Lake Mary High School. Two things need to be said about Seminole County at this point. One is that the traditional math and science superpower is particularly good at getting its academic “middle class” into Algebra 2 classes, as shown farther below. Second is that I’m showing this map without asking permission. So instead, I’ll seek forgiveness (sorry, Steve and Walt. Your map is so clear!).
Not every school follows this map, even in Seminole County (I found other Seminole County high schools that use Math for College Readiness – MCR – differently). But here is a summary of what this map means.
Algebra 1 and Geometry are graduation requirements for Florida high schools. It’s what happens after Geometry that is of interest here. In Seminole County, the majority of students are steered into Algebra 2 after Geometry. But the rest go in two different routes. The students who aren’t quite strong enough to be steered into Algebra 2 are assigned to Math for College Readiness, a course that is specifically intended to prepare students to pass the PERT math section. At Lake Mary, students are steered to MCR after Geometry, while at some other schools all students take the PERT after Algebra 2 and the ones who fail PERT are assigned to MCR.
Those students who struggle the most in Algebra 1 at Lake Mary are assigned to a math course called “Math for Liberal Arts 1” while also taking additional Algebra 1 EOC prep. Those students then follow up with Geometry after Math for Liberal Arts 1. After Geometry, they continue on to Math for Liberal Arts 2.
It’s also important to note at this point that Seminole County requires all high school students to take math every year. So students can’t just give up on math after MCR or Math for Liberal Arts 2 if they are not yet seniors. Other districts would be well-advised to adopt such a requirement.
What’s important here is for every district to give as many students as possible access to Algebra 2. Districts that steer many students away from Algebra 2 into MCR or Math for Liberal Arts to keep the Algebra 2 EOC passing rate shouldn’t be doing so. In fact, the school grade calculation for Florida high schools incentivizes just the opposite – the grade is improved by every student who passes the EOC, and not reduced for a low EOC passing rate.
How well districts are steering students into Algebra 2 is shown below, with the districts ranked by Algebra 2 enrollment rates (shown in blue). The graph also shows the enrollment rates in MCR and Liberal Arts Math 2. Having many more students in Algebra 2 than in MCR and Liberal Arts Math 2 is good. Those districts in which the number of students in MCR and Liberal Arts Math 2 is comparable to the number in Algebra 2 should reexamine their policies and practices.
It goes without saying that having great math teachers is critically important to making that work. I happen to be following several schools and districts that are struggling with that issue this summer. At some point, the State of Florida should take a hard look at its recruiting and compensation practices, because what we are doing isn’t working for many schools and districts.