New Ohio Law Focuses on Computer Science, Lets Students Avoid Algebra 2

By Leo Versel — January 30, 2018 4 min read
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An Ohio law signed recently by Gov. John Kasich will create state standards for teaching computer science and coding to K-12 students, in a move that supporters argue will have a long-term payoff for the state’s economy and workforce.

But House Bill 170, which requires the Ohio state board of education to adopt standards for introductory and advanced computer science courses in grades 9-12, would also give students an unusual amount of leeway in choosing among high school courses.

It would allow them to opt out of taking Algebra 2 in high school, and instead enroll in advanced computer science—a provision that worries some math education proponents.

Christina Sherman, president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said her organization had not taken an official position on the law, which Kasich signed last month, because it still has questions about how the measure would impact schools and students.

But in an e-mail to the organization’s members, the council raised several questions about the law, including who the teachers of the computer science courses will be, and how much math would be embedded in the classes.

In 2016, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics released a statement warning that allowing computer science courses to substitute for a high school math course could “undermine students’ math preparation.” Education Week reported at the time that 28 states were allowing computer science to count as a math or science credit toward high school graduation.

States and districts have placed a huge emphasis on teaching computer science and coding over the past few years, arguing that immersing students in that world will give them essential skills to compete in a tech-based economy.

But critics have questioned the wisdom of those efforts. Some say the hard research showing how K-12 computer science lessons connect with workforce skills is lacking. Others look skeptically on how the subject is being taught in schools, and whether the right skills are being emphasized.

Under the new law, Ohio districts are required to give high school students an option to replace one unit of Algebra 2 with an advanced computer science class. However, a student cannot substitute a biology or life science course for computer science under the state law.

Advocates say the law will expand opportunities for Ohio’s students to study computer science, with the intent of filling open programming jobs and attracting tech companies to the state.

“We know there are half a dozen states that passed similar legislation, and there is a deficiency in this skill set among K-12 students, especially in Ohio,” Rick Carfagna, a state house representative and sponsor of the legislation, said in an interview.

District Choice

There are over 500,000 open computing jobs nationally, and more than 15,000 computing jobs available in the state of Ohio, said Carfagna, citing a letter from nonprofit in support of HB 170. Last year, there were only 1,137 graduates from computer science programs in the state, he added.

“We’re trying to track the Googles and Amazons to locate their operations in Ohio,” the lawmaker said.

Carfagna and fellow Republican state representative Mike Duffey introduced the bill in March of 2017. After winning approval in the state’s House of Representatives in mid-June of last year and being approved unanimously by the Ohio state Senate in December, Kasich signed the legislation into law December 22.

Ohio schools and districts are not required to utilize the standards or curriculum, which the state board needs to adopt by March 23.

“We want to give our districts a framework to add these classes and expand their existing framework, but we are not imposing this on anyone,” Carfagna said. “Districts can choose to utilize some, all, or none of the standards we are using at the state level.”

Carfagna said the goal was to expand the “menu of options” available to students and help prepare them for an economy in which coding skills are increasingly essential.

Carfagna said he does not believe the new law will discourage students from taking math courses.

“In fact, I think there is a natural nexus between mathematics and computer science. We want to give students flexibility and prepare them for the next level of higher education or job training.”

Because Algebra 2 can be an admissions requirement for many colleges, HB 170 requires schools to communicate that to students who choose to take advanced computer science instead. Furthermore, the law requires parents and legal guardians to sign and submit a form acknowledging that not taking Algebra 2 may have an “adverse effect on college admission decisions.”

The Ohio Department of Education declined comment on the implications of allowing students to avoid taking Algebra 2.

“We are reviewing the recently passed legislation, and will work with the state board and other relevant stakeholders to operationalize it in the coming months,” Brittany Halpin, the department’s associate director for media relations, wrote in an e-mail.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.