This year (2010-11), Florida’s high school seniors are coping with an increased math graduation requirement: instead of three credits of math, they are now required to have to four credits. On the surface of it, this appears to be a positive move that will better prepare students for college-level math and, with time, will increase math literacy levels for the entire state. However, the likely near-term effect of this new requirement will be to significantly lower the graduation rate of seniors in Florida. Far from preparing students for college, this new requirement may close the doors of college to many. As a result, adding a math credit to graduation requirements without offering any new options for senior math is the wrong decision.

Ironically, on December 7, 2010, the Florida Department of Education made the announcement that during 2009/2010, Florida’s graduation rate increased to its highest level ever, to 79% of students. Of course, graduation statistics are hard to decipher, since any student who leaves high school to pursue an “adult education program” (GED) is removed from the state’s statistics. Presumably, those who may not graduate in 2011 will also not be counted next year when the state tallies up its graduation rate.

The problem is that while Florida has increased the number of math credits required for graduation, it has done nothing in terms of offering additional math courses for seniors needing to complete an additional math course during their senior year. There is a course called “Consumer Math” or “Personal Finance” that is currently a 0.5 credit course, but unfortunately it is not open for enrollment to any senior who has already progressed beyond Algebra 1 (virtually all seniors). Only students who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with special ESE designation are currently permitted to take this course, because offering it to every student would involve a “step down” on the math sequencing ladder.

The current recommended mathematics sequence for high school students is to take Algebra 1 during Freshman year (incidentally, a course with the highest failure rate of any high school level course); Geometry during Sophomore year; Algebra 2 during Junior year; and then an upper-level math course: either Trigonometry/Analytical Geometry (pre-calculus), AP Statistics, or Advanced Topics (pre-calculus). In the past, students were allowed an extra year to progress all the way through Algebra 2, and in my experience as a high school teacher, about half of all students made use of that extra year to take a remedial math course (Liberal Arts Math) or to re-take Algebra or Geometry in Virtual School.

Now, with four math credits required for graduation, students are much harder pressed to complete this requirement. For students who struggle in math and fail one of their regular math courses, a makeup credit is available in “Credit Recovery” for Algebra and Geometry. However, this year many school districts purchased new Credit Recovery software for these courses; many students are complaining that the courses are much harder to complete independently than has been true in the past.

At the same time, students who normally managed to get Bs and Cs through Algebra 1, 2, and Geometry and who would have opted to take a senior elective rather than a math course no longer have that option. Instead, they are enrolled in an advanced level math course, and it is not until semester grades are posted in February that they might be notified that due to their lack of a fourth math credit, they will not graduate.

This does not seem quite fair. The abstract math that is taught at pre-calculus level is significantly more demanding than that taught at a regular Algebra or Geometry level. For many students who only barely made it through Algebra 2, Trigonometry is another dimension altogether.

There has not been much fanfare about the new math requirement in Florida; most parents likely aren’t even aware that it affects this year’s graduating (or not) seniors. By February, it is almost too late for a senior to sign up for a lower-level Virtual School math course in order to work furiously through the average 200 assignments and quizzes that are necessary to pass such a class. By February, senioritis attacks 17 and 18 year olds like a plague; motivating them to suddenly take a crash course in math in order to graduate may be difficult. Thus, it is very important for parents and students to consider their options for an alternative math credit immediately once first semester grades have been posted.

When Florida announces the number of graduating seniors in the 2010-2011 school year (NOT the graduation rate, which is another story entirely), it is doubtful that a jubilant press conference will be held.

Parents of high school students had better get informed now about the new graduation requirements for Florida students, or they will be signing their kids up for GED programs and wondering how their “B” student who passed the FCAT requirements still failed to graduate.