Not many people noticed, but lawmakers just changed Florida’s graduation requirements in math – for better or worse

By: - May 16, 2019 7:00 am
Algebra formulas on board

Algebra formulas on board

Students, parents, and even math educators probably don’t know about a little-noticed paragraph in a bill the Legislature approved this month: It changes graduation requirements in math, helping or hindering students and potentially “dumbing down” math curriculum.

Under the current system, it takes four math credits to graduate with a typical public high school diploma in Florida, and a student must earn one credit in Algebra I.

But the new legislation would allow students to earn two math credits for graduation by successfully completing two full-year courses of Algebra 1, with kids very slowly learning the fundamentals.

And there’s a potential problem with two graduation credits for a course that usually takes one year: “A state university may not consider it as two credits for admissions purposes,” said Audrey Walden, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

The legislation does include a warning for kids, saying that a school counselor or another school official “must advise the student that admission to a state university may require the student to earn 3 additional mathematics credits that are at least as rigorous as Algebra I.”

The House and Senate approved the language as part of a broader education bill, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet acted on the legislation.

But the two-year Algebra 1 situation is highly unusual nowadays, as states have been focusing on bolstering graduation requirements to ensure kids are prepared for college and careers. Algebra 1 is an essential course that starts a trajectory that leads to higher-level math classes in high school.

The nonprofit Education Commission of the States tracks education policy, including a 50-state analysis of graduation requirements. Jennifer Thomsen, a policy director at the organization, said she “didn’t find another state that has this in law.” The 50-state analysis does show that Michigan allows students to take 1.5 or 2 years and get those credits for a more complex Algebra 2 class — but not Algebra 1.

In years past, schools elsewhere have tried to stretch out an Algebra 1 class for two years, said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

“This idea of two-year Algebra, often counted as two credits, is an old idea. It comes back over and over again, and it is always a failure,” said Treisman.

That said, Florida’s legislation is well-meaning, in that it likely attempts to help kids struggling and failing in Algebra and concerned about graduating.

“We want to make sure that we have courses that kids can pass that have intellectual, substantive value,” Treisman said.

But the better idea would be to intensify the coursework rather than string it along, he said, keeping the class to one year by using curriculum designed to help kids catch up.

“You can’t help kids catch up by slowing them down,” said Treisman, referencing the legislation’s two-year plan for passing Algebra 1.

Walden, of the Florida DOE, said some students already take two years to try to pass an Algebra 1 course.

“Students have long been able to satisfy the Algebra 1 course requirement by taking a full-year course called Algebra 1-A and another full-year course called Algebra 1B,” she said.

However, “this change (in the legislation) clarifies that they can earn two credits upon completion of these courses for high school graduation purposes,” Walden said.

In fact, the state DOE’s own data shows that tens of thousands of students are taking Algebra 1-A and B classes in various school districts.

Walden described how students could get two math credits for graduation even though Algebra 1 is one course.

“The Algebra 1-A course counts as a high school mathematics credit and Algebra 1-B counts as the Algebra 1 credit, which requires the EOC (end-of-course Algebra 1) assessment. Once the student completes 1-A and 1-B, they have two credits in mathematics.”

If that’s the case, the legislation would set in stone that students can get two math credits by taking Algebra 1 for two years.

In Santa Rosa County schools in the Panhandle, Jeffrey Baugus is a math and science supervisor and president-elect of the Florida Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

He said he had not heard about the legislation on Algebra 1 until now, and said he would review it if the governor signs the bill.

Baugus believes that in his district, students get one credit for Algebra 1, even if the kids take both Algebra 1-A and Algebra 1-B.

Baugus said that not all students will go to college, though the education system is built to push students toward higher education rather than a trade.

So, “I’m probably on the fence,” on the idea of two credits for an Algebra 1 course that usually takes one year, Baugus said. “We do have students who struggle with Algebra 1.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.