Seeking to improve national test scores consistently ranking near the bottom, Florida policymakers and educators created a system of academic standards and the FCAT to test performance against those standards. Despite substantially improving student learning, anti-testing activists have made headlines in recent months with strident arguments. No serious person, whether on the right or the left, should desire to return Florida’s schools to a transparency dark age.
Florida’s academic gains have a critical external source of validation. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has given academic achievement tests to random samples of students for many years. Administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, the NAEP provides a “gold-standard” measurement allowing cross-state comparisons. Education Week conducted a survey of education policy experts in 2006 and found NAEP to be both the most influential education data source and most influential education study. NAEP earned the highest possible score (100) in both categories.
Following the NAEP data back to the days before FCAT, we find the Florida ranked quite low compared to other states. The earliest available state by state exams for 4th and 8th grade reading and math (the main NAEP assessments) from the 1990s reveals that Florida students consistently ranked near the bottom. Florida students ranked 6th from the bottom in both 4th and 8th grade reading achievement, 5th from the bottom in 8th grade math, 10th from the bottom in 4th grade math.
All of these NAEP exams came before the advent of Florida’s standardized testing and other reforms. Tracking the NAEP data across time, however, reveals that Florida students have made progress greater than the national average. Florida students outgained the national average by almost 10% in 8th grade math, and more than 23% in 8th grade math.
The gains achieved by Florida students in reading have been truly extraordinary. Florida’s 4th grade reading progress has been more than three times the national average, and Florida’s 8th grade scores more than twice as large.
A recent problem with the FCAT writing test drew a great deal of attention from FCAT opponents. We should take care not to miss the forest for the trees. NAEP gave a Writing exam in 1998 (just before Florida’s reforms) and again in 2007. Florida students achieved the largest gain of any state and more than three times larger than the national average during this period.
Sadly, leading the nation in writing gains on the highly respected NAEP exam seems to mean little to Florida’s testing opponents.
One of the anti-testing groups seized upon the FCAT writing dispute to proclaim “These abysmal FCAT Writes scores are proof that Tallahassee’s ‘education reforms’ are an unmitigated disaster.”
Against the highly credible NAEP score gains, testing opponents offer up a grab-bag of complaints and recently even a publicity stunt. A college educated testing opponent recently claimed to have taken and failed a test similar to the 10th grade FCAT. Whether this person actually took anything like the FCAT, or actually made in any effort, is unknown but of little consequence. The vast majority of Florida 10th graders did pass the FCAT on their first try last year, and one or more of them may agree to tutor this chap for a reasonable fee.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once stated that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no one is entitled to their own facts. Here are some facts: since the advent of testing and reform the nation’s most highly respected measure of academic achievement shows strong gains in Florida. Standardized test scores and graduation rates have both improved substantially since the late 1990s, which means Florida’s citizens and students are getting more of what they want, need and deserve from the public education system today.
Matthew Ladner is Senior Advisor for Policy and Research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.