Florida should terminate its math and science end-of-course exam program

Florida is the “Just Read!” state, and has been since Governor Bush first installed the “A+ Plan” in 1998.

The state’s emphasis on reading has had considerable success at the elementary level. And as NAEP and the ACT show, Florida has had some success in reading at the middle and high school levels as well.

However, the state’s performance on middle and high school level national math and science exams range from about average (8th grade NAEP science) to tragic (8th grade NAEP math).  The state’s regulation of math and science education at the secondary level has been unsuccessful.  As far as I can tell, there is little or no interest among policy-makers in the legislature and in the executive branch in improving secondary math and science achievement.  What would it take to demonstrate such interest?  A concentrated effort to recruit more strong math and science teachers, almost certainly including a differential pay program like Georgia has.  District teacher unions would never approve such a thing, so the initiative would have to come from the state.  And it’s not going to.

After 19 years of reform efforts, we can be pretty sure that not much will change in this regard.

So perhaps it is time to adopt a scheme in which the regulation of reading education is a state responsibility and the responsibility for regulating math and science education is devolved to the school districts.

What does this mean from a practical point of view?  It would have important consequences for the state’s accountability system.  As much as allowed by the new federal education law, ESSA, Florida should get out of the math and science testing business.

ESSA still requires annual statewide reading and math testing for grades 3-8 and a single reading and math test in high school.  In addition, there must be one science test in elementary grades, one in middle grades, and one in high school.

So here is a scheme that meets the minimum ESSA requirements and acknowledges the fact that Florida’s state education leaders don’t have any real interest in secondary math and science:

  • Maintain the FSA reading and math tests in grades 3-8.
  • Maintain the state’s grade 5 and 8 science tests.
  • Adopt the ACT (which has reading, English, math, and science sections) as the state’s high school test for federal accountability purposes, and require every 11th grader to take it in the spring.
  • Terminate the end-of-course exams for Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2 and Biology.

A caveat:  It is still not clear that the ACT will be approved for federal accountability purposes in Wisconsin and Wyoming, two states that have already asked the US Department of Education for permission.  (Sixteen states require all 11th graders to take the ACT, but don’t presently use the exams to meet federal accountability requirements)  But one would think that federal regulations will be relaxed – and not tightened – under the new administration.

Adoption of the ACT would provide this advantage – a transparent way of comparing the performance of Florida’s students with those in other states that require the ACT. (See below)

Ditching the EOC’s would also have advantages.  The Algebra 2 exam, with its 40% passing rate and its inclusion in the high school grading formula, incentivizes schools to keep average students out of the course – precisely the wrong thing to do in an economy where an Associate in Applied Science is necessary to get a job on an assembly line.  Getting rid of the Algebra 1 and Geometry EOC’s would allow all 7th and 8th graders to take the FSA 7th and 8th grade math tests (middle schoolers in Algebra or Geometry courses are presently prohibited from taking the FSA math test because they must take the EOC’s and are not allowed to take two state exams).  That would give school districts a nice clean look at how their middle school students are competing with those in other districts, and would eliminate the gamesmanship decisions that might presently creep into middle school math placement.

And eliminating the Biology EOC would also eliminate the subliminal message to high schoolers and their parents that biology is the only important science subject.

The state’s educational leaders have no interest in providing a carrot for middle and high school math and science achievement.  They should give up the stick as well.

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