TALLAHASSEE — In a dramatic education shift, Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law tougher graduation requirements Tuesday for public high school students that will eventually replace the math and science Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Students will soon have to take geometry, Algebra II, biology, chemistry or physics, plus one equally rigorous science course, and pass standardized exams in those subjects to graduate.
"What this means is, Florida will no longer be the bottom of the barrel when it comes to graduation requirements in the United States," said Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, the bill's House sponsor. "It is really coursework that every student should be taking."
Starting with the upcoming school year, ninth-graders will no longer have to take the math FCAT. The 10th-grade math FCAT and 11th-grade science FCAT will be eliminated by 2011-12.
The shift signifies a new focus on more rigorous science and math instruction. The FCAT, the bane of thousands of high school students since its introduction in 2001, was widely criticized for its broad focus.
Conversely, the new end-of-course exams will help students master specific subjects needed to succeed in college and the workplace, proponents said.
"By aligning high school diploma requirements with the needs of a 21st century economy, Florida is creating a business climate that will attract investment and the high wage jobs that come with it," said Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.
Often overshadowed by a polarizing legislation that sought to tie teacher pay to student performance before it was vetoed by Crist earlier this month, the end-of-course exams bill was approved in the House and Senate with bipartisan support. Even in its passing, it barely earned more than a quick nod from lawmakers.
"That was a good bill, so I signed it," Crist said by way of explanation.
Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith agreed.
"This bill is a great step forward for our state, and will result in better outcomes for your youth,'' he said. "By shifting the focus to these critical courses, we will ensure our students are leaving school prepared to succeed in today's global economy.''
Current Florida law requires four math credits and three science credits for graduation, but, other than Algebra I, does not specify which courses are needed.
Under the measure, schools will have to provide counseling on high school graduation requirements, vocational certification options, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program and college admission.
Incoming freshman would have to take geometry to graduate. The other required subjects will be gradually phrased in through 2013-14.
Students celebrated the change.
"I didn't really like FCAT at all," said Eve Sembler, 17, a St. Petersburg High School senior. "I thought it was a waste of time, so it's a step in the right direction. Any change should be embraced."
Shannon Glenn, 18, also a St. Petersburg High senior, said the FCAT is an invalid performance measurement.
"It just tests way too generally, not necessarily what students have learned," she said. "It is going to be difficult for a lot of people but . . . students really need to be challenged in order to learn."
But critics questioned whether the new graduation requirements would stall below-average students and leave school districts scrambling to keep up.
Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino called the legislation a potentially expensive unfunded mandate.
She noted that districts will have to spend money to purchase new textbooks and schools will have to change the way they do their master schedules, among other issues.
She also said it might be hard to find enough teachers to teach the higher-level science and math courses.
"You aren't usually going to be finding teachers coming out of the colleges ready to teach that," Fiorentino told the Pasco School Board on Tuesday.
Dr. Julie Janssen, superintendent of Pinellas County schools, said the measure may hurt the district's overall graduation rate at first. But, it is the district's job to prepare students, she said.
"Who can say anything negative about rigor?" she asked.
Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Tori Creighton contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.