TALLAHASSEE — Florida high school students 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 backers 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 required.
Under the bill, which is expected to pass, that would change starting next school year, when 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 10th-grade math FCAT and 11th-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, R-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 graduation standards praised 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 nonpartisan board 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," he 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 school superintendent Jim Notter said he believes in setting high standards, but it is already hard to find high-level math and science teachers. With this bill, he said, he'll be competing with other districts to recruit from a small pool of teachers.
Vera Perkovic, a chemistry teacher at South Broward High School in Hollywood, said an effective teacher has to know how to get the subject across.
She said it will be beneficial to have students take chemistry classes like hers to graduate. They need better preparation starting in earlier grades, she said.
Artecona-Pelaez, the UM educator, suggested the changes should be put into effect years from now — for kids who start kindergarten or first grade next school year — to give them and school systems time to prepare.
"In an ideal world, a high school graduate should have what we consider a hard science like chemistry or physics," she said. "The reality is we should be very careful about how they're phasing this in. Are we getting students that are ready for these content matters in high school? … How many kids are going to be left in limbo?"
MAST Academy junior Alexandra Orth is at no risk of being left in limbo. At 16, she is taking AP chemistry, honors physics and precalculus.
She said the proposed requirements sound good for students.
"I think that it's really important that the state thinks that we need to take more rigorous courses in order to graduate from high school," said Alexandra, who is considering a career as a chemical or biomedical engineer. "These courses are very important for life."
Plus, she said, classes like chemistry can be fun, especially when you get to apply what you've learned in lectures to the lab.
"We have a blast doing it," she said.