Common Core in High School: New Florida Law Raises Questions

By Erik W. Robelen — April 22, 2013 5 min read
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Algebra 2 will become an optional course for high school students pursuing a standard diploma under legislation Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed today. Advocates say this and other changes to Florida graduation requirements (only adopted in 2010) aim to give students more flexibility as they prepare for various career paths. But the action seems to raise questions about fidelity to the Common Core State Standards in Florida. Indeed, this may prove a thorny issue in other states, too.

In math, the common standards call for all students to meet algebra learning objectives akin to what one would expect in Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 courses, several experts tell me, including the ability to reason with and apply that mathematics. (Indeed, one “model pathway” outlined in an appendix to the standards suggests students take Algebra 1, Geometry, and then Algebra 2. Another is for “integrated” courses that blend concepts in algebra, geometry, and other math knowledge in the standards.)

The Florida legislation, which won strong, bipartisan majorities in the state’s Republican-controlled House and Senate, is intended to designate “multiple pathways” for demonstrating the skills and knowledge required of high school graduates. Those include a “scholar designation” for students planning to attend a four-year college, as well as a “merit designation” that involves pursuing industry certifications for some high school credit.

Climbing ‘Mount Algebra 2'

Here’s a quote from a recent story in the Orlando Sentinel that especially caught my eye:

“We’ll finally recognize that college, although great for some, is not for everybody,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, according to the newspaper. “We finally give them a path to get the skills they need ... instead of making them climb Mount Algebra 2.”

As I understand it, the legislation removes some requirements to earn a standard diploma that were enacted in 2010, including taking and passing certain courses in math and science. Only students who want the “scholar” designation would be required to take Algebra 2 and pass an end-of-course assessment in the subject, for instance.

The industry certifications approved by the state board of education may substitute for one or more courses or credits in math and science, a Senate summary of the legislation explains, including (but not limited to) Algebra 2, chemistry, and physics. The summary notes that “students who acquire skills best through applied learning could benefit from [such] a pathway.”

“The whole purpose of this bill is to connect the skills of our students with the needs of our employers, and to recognize that not every student in the state of Florida is going to go to college,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, who chairs the House K-12 Education Subcommittee, according to a story published earlier this month in the Tampa Bay Times.

But the question, at least as concerns the common core, is whether those industry-certification alternatives will, in fact, deliver on all the algebra content spelled out in the math standards. As I noted above, only students who take Algebra 2 will have to pass the state Algebra 2 exam.

Alissa Peltzman, a vice president at Achieve, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that worked with states and others to develop the common core, sees reason for concern with the Florida legislation. Although when I spoke with her the other day, Peltzman had not read the Florida measure, she was troubled by the potential implications.

“The thing that’s been my 2 a.m. at night [fear] is this idea that the common core is not going to end up being for all kids,” she said. “Implementation of the common core will require states to look differently at the high school experience.”

Peltzman was quick to note that just because a course is called Algebra 2 doesn’t mean it meets the objectives of the common core. (Indeed, a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics finds that many high school math courses do not live up to their titles with commensurate rigor.)

She said she recognizes that “multiple course options” can deliver on the standards’ expectations.

“There is room for flexibility, and there should be leeway. But ultimately, all of those courses need to ensure that in the aggregate they’re covering the full range of the common-core standards,” she said. “I worry the most about the disadvantaged students who stand to benefit the most from this coursework.”

Echoes of Texas Debate

Another Florida lawmaker who praised the legislation said it recognizes the many different career paths students may pursue.

“Now we’re taking care of each and every student,” whether they want to be “a brain surgeon or Mercedes mechanic,” said Rep. Elizabeth Porter, a Republican, according to an Associated Press story.

But Peltzman emphasized that Algebra 2 isn’t just for college-bound kids, arguing that the skills and knowledge students gain is important for many jobs that require less postsecondary education.

And she cites data in Florida showing that 77 percent of jobs are classified as “either middle skill or high skill,” requiring some degree of postsecondary education or training.

But if a young person ultimately does decide to pursue a four-year degree, completing Algebra 2, Peltzman said, is a “strong predictor” that they will succeed.

Some readers may recall that Texas lawmakers have had this same discussion of late. A House bill approved last month would eliminate a requirement that all students pass an Algebra 2 end-of-course exam to graduate. Of course, Texas did not adopt the common-core standards. But something tells me this question on Algebra 2 could become a significant challenge for many states that have adopted the common core.

UPDATE: (April 23, 2013)
I asked the Florida education department yesterday to comment on the legislation, and in particular the implications for common-core alignment by making Algebra 2 optional for high school students. Here’s the response provided this morning by email from a spokeswoman. Unfortunately, it does not exactly shed any light on the situation. (It’s worth noting here that Florida’s new education commissioner is Tony Bennett, the former state chief in Indiana and a big champion for the common core.)

“The Florida Department of Education is pleased Senate Bill 1076 was signed into law today,” the statement say. “The bill offers more flexibility to students as they prepare to be ready for college and careers. We are reviewing the bill to determine the full impact of the many details in this legislation.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.