Putting Education Reform To The Test

Algebra Isn’t Enough: Make Precalculus A Bright Futures Requirement

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle.

Florida State University

Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle.

While Florida’s Bright Futures scholarships no longer pay the entire tuition bill at the state’s public universities as they once did, they are still a valuable source of financial support for thousands of students.

Recent increases in the minimum scores on SAT and ACT college entrance exams required for Bright Futures eligibility have sparked some discussion and an investigation – now closed – by the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

But aside from the test score requirements, the only high school courses required for Bright Futures eligibility are those required for high school graduation.  In math, that means that only Algebra 1 and Geometry are presently required to earn a Bright Futures scholarship.

The conventional wisdom among education policy-makers and scholars has been that Algebra 2 is the high school math course that makes a student “college-ready,” and by that standard the math course requirement for Bright Futures falls short.

But a recent study from the University of Michigan published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Higher Education (read it below), suggests that even Algebra 2 does not adequately prepare students for a four-year college program – that higher level math courses are necessary to give a student a good chance of completing a bachelor’s degree.

The Michigan study actually focuses on Florida students because for decades our state has been the national leader in tracking student progress.

The goal of the study was to determine whether taking Algebra 2 significantly increases a student’s probability of enrolling in college and – more importantly – completing college with a degree.  The study’s authors worked hard to untangle factors like student demographics and a high school’s academic culture from the actual academic effect of learning Algebra 2.

The conclusion of the study was that completing Algebra 2 in high school makes it more likely that a student will enroll in college.  But Algebra 2 does not significantly improve a student’s chances of completing a bachelor’s degree.

Clearly, it makes no sense to set the Bright Futures high school math course bar as low as Algebra 1 and Geometry, as it is now.  But if Bright Futures scholarships are intended to help more students earn bachelors’ degrees, then even raising the bar to Algebra 2 is not enough.  Instead, the minimum math course requirement for Bright Futures should be completing Precalculus, which is the course that comes after Algebra 2 in the standard high school math sequence.

Coincidentally, the Board of Directors of the American Society for Engineering Education recently stated that Precalculus is the minimum high school math course necessary to prepare a student for a college major in engineering.  In other words, a high school graduate who has completed Precalculus has the minimum math background to take on any college major.

Bright Futures scholarships should reward students for being fully prepared to succeed in a bachelor’s degree program.  Raising the Bright Futures high school math course requirement to Precalculus would be an important step toward that goal.

Paul Cottle is a physics professor at Florida State University and writes about education issues at his blog, Bridge to Tomorrow.


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