The days of watered-down algebra and simplistic science may be coming to an end for Florida high school students.
Under new graduation requirements signed into law last month by Gov. Charlie Crist, students by 2013 will be required to take tough science and math courses — and pass end-of-course exams — to earn their high school diplomas.
Now it's up to school districts, teachers and students to get ready for the changes, which will be phased in starting this fall. Among the challenges:
• High schools may need to drop less-rigorous math and science courses from schedules to make room for new sections of required classes;
• Districts will need to help teachers get certification in new subjects or hire more hard-to-find math and science specialists;
• Students will have to push themselves harder, starting in middle school, to prepare for classes they might not otherwise choose.
Still, school leaders said the changes were long overdue.
"Our kids have to compete with the best of them," said Owen Young, principal at Middleton High in Tampa. "If we don't make sure the rigor is there, then shame on us."
The number of credits students need to graduate — four math, three science — isn't changing. But those requirements will become far more specific.
Incoming freshmen this fall will be required to complete geometry. Those who enter high school in 2011 will also have to take biology during their high school years. Algebra II will join the requirements in 2012, and for those entering in 2013, requirements will include chemistry or physics and one "equally rigorous" science course.
Students also will need to pass end-of-course exams worth at least 30 percent of their grade, rather than the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which will be phased out at the high school level.
Stephanie Geyfman, a science teacher and subject area leader at Giunta Middle School in Hillsborough County, said she's all in favor of the tougher requirements.
"Are we going to see kids struggling in the beginning? Probably so," Geyfman said. "We're going to have to reach into our bag of tricks for those kids. But we're going to see them getting more and more prepared."
It's not necessarily going to be easy, said Marcia Austin, a curriculum specialist for the Hernando County school district.
"Now that we've opened the doors for students to take more rigorous courses, they're going to need more support, and the teachers not familiar with that population are going to need support," Austin said.
Students may find annual end-of-course exams more manageable than the FCAT science test, which encompasses three years of work, said Lynneice Bowen, the science department chairwoman at Middleton High.
But many students now take conceptual science courses that don't require a strong math background, she said.
"If you're required to take physics for computation, you definitely need to have strong algebra skills," Bowen said. "If that's the case, we definitely have a lot of work to do."
Districts are already taking a closer look at what's being taught in middle school, said James T. Davis, Pasco's assistant superintendent for high schools and adult and alternative schools.
"You need to make sure you have those course sequences worked through at the middle school level so when they come to high school, that transition is smooth," he said.
Asked about the prospect of taking another science class, Madison Harris, a freshman at Springstead High School in Hernando County, wrinkled her nose. There is a gap, apparently, between her scientific aptitude and her willingness to take another course.
"I'm not scared, but I don't want to," Harris said.
What about the FCAT making way for end of course exams?
"That sounds really good, because it's really hard to remember everything, so if we'd just learned it, it would be easier," Harris said.
State officials say there's plenty of time for students and districts to prepare.
"We need more math and science teachers, definitely," said Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor for curriculum and instruction. "Both of those areas are in teacher shortage."
She said districts would likely need to reassign certified teachers where they're needed most, and eliminate science and math courses that aren't aligned with state standards.
"Certainly there will be some teachers who will need to update their certification," Tappen added. "And we're going to need to provide them with model lessons."
District officials largely agreed with that assessment, saying they didn't anticipate needing to hire many additional teachers.
Staffing the new math courses will likely be easier, since most high school math teachers have certifications that allow them to teach courses as high as Algebra II. But science certifications pose a bigger hurdle.
"It will be difficult because we usually have a challenge finding properly certified chemistry and physics teachers," said Cathy Fleeger, deputy superintendent and chief academic officer for the Pinellas County school district.
Developing new end-of-course exams will cost around $1.5 million per test each year, said Kris Ellington, state director of assessment. But some of those costs have already been paid; the exam for Algebra II is being field-tested in several districts, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando.
State officials said the payoff for Florida in the long run could be enormous. For example, said deputy chancellor Tappen, the state's biotech and agriscience industries are poised to grow — but only if schools can supply them with skilled workers.
"Those are areas where we can continue to do well if we ramp up," she said.
Florida diplomas must be seen as valuable and meaningful, said principal Young at Middleton High.
"I don't think we should relax our expectations on student achievement," he said. "I think it's all heading in the right direction."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.