State Politics

New course requirements near approval

TALLAHASSEE — High school students in Florida would have to take more advanced math and science courses in order to graduate under a bill set for a final vote today, a move that supporters hope will better prepare teens for college and work.

The proposed law would also eliminate the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in math and science for high schoolers, replacing them with end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology.

“It’s huge,” said Gloria Artecona-Pelaez, director of teacher education at the University of Miami. “We have graduated students that walk out of a high school in Florida and walk into a community college at the remedial level. And then you’re expecting almost overnight to have students walk out of high school college-ready.”

Current Florida law requires four math credits and three science credits for graduation. Other than Algebra I, no specific courses are laid out as requirements.

Under the bill, which is expected to pass, that would change starting next school year, when incoming freshmen would also have to take geometry to graduate. With additional courses phased in over the next few years, freshmen who start by the 2013-14 school year would also have to take Algebra II, biology, chemistry or physics, plus one equally rigorous science course.

The bill would get rid of the ninth-grade math FCAT next school year and the grade 10 math FCAT and eleventh-grade science FCAT by 2011-12.

The measure has already passed the Senate; it is scheduled for a final vote in the House this afternoon.

State Rep. John Legg, a Republican from Port Richey who sponsored the bill, said Wednesday that the science courses and end-of course exams are necessary for students to compete in today’s economy. They would not be able to get a diploma until they passed all the tests — plus whatever FCAT still exists for reading.

“We want to show that students upon leaving high school have those skills mastered,” he said.

Fewer than 40 percent of high school juniors performed at grade level on last year’s science FCAT. Nearly 70 percent of 10th-graders were at or above grade level on the math test. The scores, especially in science, have been discouraging as concern mounts nationally over the state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Advocates of higher standards for graduation applauded the bill as a step in the right direction.

“They’ve added the requirements for a high school diploma. They’ve moved from FCAT to end-of-course testing,” said Dave Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. “I think all of that ... is excellent.”

The board is a nonpartisan organization that works with 16 member states to improve public education.

“Florida would be one of the very few states that would have this requirement that would apply to all students,” Spence said.

However, school district officials fear they will struggle to find enough qualified teachers to meet the demand — especially as a bill moves forward that would put new teachers on one-year contracts and tie pay to student performance.

Broward schools Superintendent Jim Notter said he believes in setting high standards for students, but he already has a hard enough time finding high-level math and science teachers. If the bill passes, he said, he’ll be competing with other Florida districts to recruit from a small pool of teachers.