This time, Florida education reformers hand ammo to critics

Ron Matus

The last thing you want to give people waging a scorched-earth campaign against you is a gas can and a match.

Though well intended, the hard-charging Florida Board of Education moved too far, too fast last year when it raised the bar on academic standards. The short-term result for the state’s standardized writing test isn’t pretty. According to scores released this week, the percentage of passing fourth graders alone dropped from 81 to 27.

In an emergency session, the board tried to mitigate. It revised the passing scores downward so the percent passing will be roughly the same this year as it was last year. Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson also admitted the state should have better communicated the new scoring criteria to teachers.

But (sigh) the damage was done. The people who have bitterly fought every major education reform in Florida since Jeb Bush was elected governor – and who will never admit there has been real progress – now have a bit of real ammo. They’ll use it to take fresh aim at everything from new teacher evaluations to expanded school choice. They’ll be even more aggressive ripping into the next batch of reading and math scores, which will also look a lot starker this year.

Conspiracy theories are spinning wildly. This was a well orchestrated plot, goes one, to make traditional public schools look bad so charter schools shine by comparison and the privatization agenda can reign supreme. Never mind that just a few years ago, the state had a record number of A and B schools. Or that charter schools take the same tests. Or that, if the past is any guide, a disproportionate number of them will be tagged with F’s.

You won’t read this in the papers (except, thankfully, in this Orlando Sentinel column), so here’s the backdrop for Florida’s latest ed reform flap.

Despite the denial of critics, one academic indicator after another, from NAEP scores to AP results to grad rates (all crunched by somebody outside Florida), shows the Sunshine State has been a national leader in progress over the past decade, particularly for minority and low-income kids. Last week, the highly regarded Florida Trend magazine (in an acknowledgement as rare as a Florida panther sighting) offered a perception-vs.-reality piece about the state’s “lousy public schools.” Its spot-on headline: “Education in Florida is undersold.”

At the same time, it’s also true that Florida has so far to go. And there are signs that its once-impressive gains in reading and math have stalled.

So the board was right to ratchet up expectations. It’s doing what it can with the tools it has. Florida has a more advanced system of school choice than any state in the country, but it is still young and evolving. Until that bottom-up system matures, and parents can seriously leverage positive change themselves, the state is left to apply pressure from the top down.

Raising the bar is political and subjective but necessary. It’s also tricky. It requires finding the right balance between rigorous and reasonable, between high enough to motivate but not to discourage.

It was common knowledge that the state’s writing test was way too easy. It’s about time the state meaningfully assessed students on punctuation, spelling and grammar – something past tests didn’t do. But the combination of tougher criteria, higher passing score and little time for adjustment tipped the balance from boldness and urgency to overreach.

Just what critics were waiting for.

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