Requiring high school students to take four years of math to graduate sounds like a good idea, right? Isn’t learning as much as possible something every state lawmaker should get behind?
Well, state senators agreed about the concept, but they weren’t totally united about how to accomplish it on Wednesday, when the Wyoming Senate began considering Senate File 8, an education accountability and assessment bill that would change the number of required mathematics courses from three to four.
You may be wondering what the hesitation about requiring more math was all about. Did some of our state senators flunk trigonometry or calculus? If they did, none of them disclosed that possible fact to their colleagues.
What drove several lawmakers to speak against the change was the notion that smaller school districts don’t have the resources to offer four high school math classes.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), a school administrator, got the conversation rolling when he agreed about the math mandate, but added people need to realize that two-thirds of the students at small schools begin their senior year anxious to enter the job world or learn a trade, and are not going to college.
Sen. Hank Coe (R-Cody) is chairman of the Select Committee on Statewide Education Accountability, which sponsored SF 8. The 34-page bill took several months to craft, but the only thing senators seemed to want to talk about was the math requirement.
Coe tried to nip that criticism in the bud. “In all the different evidence presented to us, particularly out of North Carolina and Indiana, four years of math is a driver of success in college,” Coe said.
He said students shouldn’t get a break from math in their senior year, but keep their collective noses to the grindstone. All right, that’s not an exact quote from the chairman and Senate president, but this is: “I think success involves the rigor in taking math as a senior.”
To qualify for one of the state’s Hathaway Scholarships, Coe added, students must take four years of math.
“I’ve heard comments [in the Senate] that kids just need to get out of high school, and if they have to do four years of math, they might not be successful in doing that,” he said. “Let me tell you, 46 percent of Wyoming graduates starting at community colleges have to go to remedial classes.
“You can’t get by with just a little math anymore,” Coe added.
Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said the main problem is lack of resources for small school districts.
“It’s almost impossible to have a fourth year of math at a small school,” he said. “The state dictates what students have to take, and classes are taken [with those requirements] all day, every day.”
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), a member of the select committee, did just what someone would be expected to do if he’s trying to win an argument about math: He threw some numbers at the opponents.
Out of the core classes, he explained, nine of the 28 credit hours required are electives. That’s nearly one-third, he added.
As for two-thirds of high school students deciding not to go to college, Rothfuss said, “There aren’t too many careers or life paths out there that it won’t help to be as strong as possible in math.”
Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock) said he supports a four-year math requirement to graduate, but he also agreed with Wasserburger and Driskill.
“I question the small schools’ ability to deliver that. … There are a number of other things the small schools have expressed difficulty achieving,” he said.
“If you can’t teach [four years of math] in small schools, that’s a fundamental [state] constitutional problem,” Rothfuss said. Both he and Coe reminded the Senate that the Wyoming Supreme Court has required the state to provide the same educational opportunities for students, no matter where they live.
Rothfuss made a final point. “The students who aren’t going to college are the ones I want most to have four years of math,” he said. “The last opportunity they’re going to have to take math is in high school.”
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) agreed with that statement. “But the real challenge in these rural schools is there are a lot of kids who are excelling, but there’s an inability to access a really high-level math class.”
“Are we hung up on quantity, or should we concentrate on quality?” he asked. “Should we have the bar set at graduating from high school at a certain level of mathematics, rather than a certain number of hours?”
The Senate passed SF 8 on first reading on a voice vote. If it is approved on third reading, it will be considered by the House, which should probably brush up on its math. Even legislators need to be good at ciphering and what times what equals what, if they’re going to pass a supplemental budget next month.