As Wisconsin schools prepare their students and teachers for more rigorous coursework, lawmakers have introduced legislation that also would increase the number of math and science classes high school students must take before they graduate.
Instead of two credits each of math and science courses currently required to graduate under state law, Wisconsin public school students would be required to obtain three under legislation introduced Monday by Rep. John Klenke, R-Green Bay, and Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. Under the proposal, school districts could choose to accept up to one credit of computer science to count as a math credit and could elect to accept agricultural sciences courses as science credits.
Lawmakers will meet Thursday to discuss the proposal.
The goal is for Wisconsin schools to produce more competitive students, supporters say. This comes at a time when Wisconsin school districts are implementing the Common Core State Standards, a new curriculum designed to demand more critical thinking from students.
“If you look across the country, we have the lowest required credits for graduation,” said Sarah Archibald, education policy adviser for Olsen. Archibald said the increased requirements sets an expectation of having competitive students compared with other states’ students.
Wisconsin currently requires students to have 13.5 credits to graduate, though most districts require more. In comparison, Illinois requires 14 credits, Minnesota requires 21.5 credits and Michigan requires 16 credits. On average, Wisconsin school districts require about 21.5 credits to graduate according to John Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction.
All of those states require at least three credits of both subjects except Illinois, which requires two credits of science.
“We’ve gotten to the point that many members finally understand that Wisconsin’s performance is not as spectacular as we once thought it was,” said Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains. “It’s time for Wisconsin to join up and do the right thing.”
Pope said in previous unsuccessful pushes to increase requirements in math and science, she worried dropout rates would increase.
“My suspicion was it would result in the unintended consequence (of) some kids dropping out because they just couldn’t face another year of math and science, but we have become much more flexible in Wisconsin in what is considered to be a science credit,” Pope said.
Marj Passman, Madison school board member and former schoolteacher, said though she is wary of any educational mandate from lawmakers, her chief, and only, concern is where the funding will come from if the new requirement becomes law.
“There’s nothing wrong about it — in fact, everything is right about strengthening what we do in our schools and it’s wonderful to say, but if you’re not going to fund it … and they are notorious for that,” Passman said. “If you want this, and this seems like a reasonable thing to want from your graduates, then give us the money to do it.”
Archibald, Johnson and Pope said there hasn’t been any discussion to address what the new requirement could cost individual districts, or if the state would send more money their way to pay for them.
Johnson said an amendment to be introduced by Olsen that would provide flexibility in the kinds of courses that would count toward each requirement is expected to soften any added monetary burden on districts.
Johnson said career and technical education courses, for example, could be counted toward the science or math credits depending on the coursework. He said state Superintendent Tony Evers is supportive of allowing courses in agricultural science, computer science and career and technical education courses to count. DPI has proposed such an increase in requirements for years.
In the eight districts immediately surrounding the Madison School District, the Middleton-Cross Plains School District is the only one currently requiring more math and science than state law requires.
Jack Markin, science department coordinator at Middleton High School, said the implementation didn’t require additional staffing in his department because 90 percent of the school’s students already were taking three years of science.
In the McFarland School District, superintendent Scott Brown said its science department is proposing increasing requirements to the school board in December. The math department will follow soon, he said.
Brown said he doesn’t expect the district’s budget to be greatly affected as about three-fourths of high school students already are taking three credits each of math and science.
“We looked at the data relative to it and around 75 percent of students take three credits of math and science already so it would have an impact on our budget — we may need additional space and may need some staffing — but not (much),” he said.
Madison School District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said 18 percent of last year’s district graduates only took the minimum two credits each of science and math.
“We don’t anticipate this would have a major impact on staffing,” she said about the proposal.
In the 2012-13 school year, 45.2 percent of districts had more math credit requirements than state law demands and 37.1 percent in science, according to figures provided by DPI. Ten years ago, 29.6 percent required more math the state required and 20 percent required more science.