After a brief stall, Florida students and teachers are again making nationally notable gains on a closely watched test.
Released Thursday, the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as “the nation’s report card,” show Florida students making solid growth between 2011 and 2013 on three of four tests that are used to compare achievement from state to state.
The NAEP reading and math tests are given every other year to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-graders in all 50 states.
Fueled by the performance of low-income and minority students, Florida was one of only four states that made statistically significant score gains on both the eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math tests. It was also one of only seven states that showed a statistically significant increase in the percentage of students scoring at or above the basic level on fourth-grade reading, with a jump from 71 to 75 percent. (See charts below for the Florida and U.S. trend lines.)
The improved scores are “an example of what can be accomplished when we focus on what is important,” Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said in a written statement.
The latest results will have academic repercussions in the Sunshine State, a national leader in ed reform for more than a decade, and, maybe, political and legal ones. For embattled ed reformers, they bring a sigh of relief. For critics, they bring more evidence, despite oft-repeated arguments, that Florida public schools continue to improve faster than schools just about anywhere.
Here’s the context:
Between the late 1990s and 2009, Florida was arguably the national pacesetter on NAEP progress, moving from the bottom tier of states on all four core tests to the middle tier or better on three of them. It is impossible to sort out which factors led to rising trend lines, but Florida’s escape from the national cellar coincided with the sweeping policy changes ushered in by former Gov. Jeb Bush. Generally, the changes stressed higher standards, expanded school choice and top-down regulatory accountability. More specifically, they included school grades, private school vouchers, third-grade retention and an intense focus on literacy in early grades. Over the second half of that span, Florida also modestly shrunk class sizes and rolled out a popular, voluntary pre-kindergarten program, both prompted by voter-approved amendments to the state constitution.
Then came 2011.
Trend lines dipped. Critics pounced. And a decade’s worth of gains, already overlooked by most of the Florida press, were subsequently buried under headlines about school grading snafus, a revolving door in the education commissioner’s office and, most recently, attacks on Common Core.
Like the previous gains, the latest ones were amped by the performance of students who typically struggle the most. In fourth-grade reading, test scores for Florida Hispanic students rose five points while the national average went up two. In eighth-grade reading, Florida’s black students gained six points while their national counterparts moved up two. In eighth-grade math, Florida’s disabled students saw a five-point increase, while disabled students nationally dropped a point.
Florida showed the least progress in fourth-grade math. Scores rose by two points, but it was not enough to be considered statistically significant. The percentage of students scoring at basic or above also remained unchanged, at 84 percent, though the percentage at proficient or above rose from 37 to 41 percent.
In Florida, especially, test scores mean a lot.
The new numbers will give reformers new leverage. They could play a role in next year’s governor’s race. They could even wind up in court. They might matter politically if Republican Gov. Rick Scott continues to more-or-less stick with the Bush vision of ed reform, and if probable Democratic nominee Charlie Crist, who once did likewise, attempts to draw bigger contrasts. They matter legally given a high-profile lawsuit, led by the Orlando-based parents group Fund Education Now, that charges the state with failing to provide high-quality schools.
More immediately, the results will spark questions about why. Coincidentally or not, Florida’s NAEP scores hit that 2011 snag during some of the deepest funding cuts in decades. And coincidentally or not, the latest numbers synch with upgraded academic standards and tougher state tests, introduced a few years ago, that state education officials see as a bridge between older standards and Common Core.
Nationally, NAEP scores rose modestly: 1 point in fourth-grade math, fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math; two points in eighth-grade reading.
In a written statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the results “encouraging but modest.” Despite them, he added, “U.S. students are still well behind their peers in top-performing nations.”
On the fourth-grade tests, seven states showed statistically significant gains in reading, 14 in math.
On the eighth-grade tests, 12 showed gains in reading and five in math.
Only Tennessee showed gains on all four tests.
Other coverage: Tampa Bay Times, Education Week, Washington Post, New York Times, Politics K-12 blog, StateImpact Florida, Jay P. Greene’s Blog, Hechinger Report, Fort Myers News Press, Pensacola News Journal, Orlando Sentinel, Richard Whitmire.
redefinED contributors Ron Matus and Patrick R. Gibbons contributed to this report. This post is a work in progress. Check back for updates.