In February of this year (2011) the Foundation for Educational Choice and the Tennessee Center for Policy Research released a study, Lesson for Tennessee from Florida’s Education Revolution.  It is very easy to read and if you take out the graphs it is only about 11 pages long.  If you have the time you may read it in full Here.  However, we have pulled a few highlights and graphs below for a quick look.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the nation’s most reliable and respected source for data on K-12 education, testing representative samples of students in every state on a variety of subjects, including mathematics and reading.  Compared to Tennessee, the average Florida Hispanic student scored higher than the average score for all Tennessee students on NAEP’s fourth-grade reading test in 2009.  In addition, Florida’s African American students went from being far behind their peers in Tennessee to being significantly ahead of them. The pages that follow lay out Florida’s reforms, and suggest how Tennessee  policymakers could emulate the Sunshine State.

The gains of Florida’s fourth- and eighth-grade students on NAEP examination far exceed the progress of students across the nation. Importantly, the so-called “achievement gap” is narrowing in Florida, with African American and Hispanic children making even greater progress than their white peers on the NAEP test.

This paper focuses specifically on fourth-grade reading scores for one key reason:  The development of early literacy skills is crucial to the overall academic success of students in the years that follow.  Although this paper’s focus is on early childhood reading scores, Florida’s gains were not limited to that subject.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) published an analysis of the main NAEP exams (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math) in a way designed to maximize comparability among states based on family income and special program status.  ALEC’s analysis covered the entire period for which all 50 states gave the NAEP exam, and found that Florida students made the largest overall gains on the combined four tests.  In the ALEC report ranking student performance, Florida ranked third among the 50 states, whereas Tennessee ranked 36.  Also, the same report gave Florida a B+ grade for the quality and scope of its education reforms, whereas Tennessee received a D grade.

But   Figure   1   understates   the   true   scale   of Florida’s   achievement, as it compares all students without making “apples to apples” comparisons regarding student demographics.  Approximately half the students in both Florida and Tennessee qualify   for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch under federal guidelines (a standard measure of family income). Florida’s far larger Hispanic population, however, means that Florida has a majority-minority student population, whereas Tennessee does not.  In terms of ethnic composition, 47 percent of Florida students are white, whereas 68 percent of Tennessee students are white. Both states have about 24 percent of their student population comprising African Americans,  but Florida’s Hispanic  population is approximately nine times  larger than Tennessee’s  on  a  percentage basis (26 percent compared to only 2.8 percent, respectively).

Both states’ demographic profiles make Florida’s achievement  victory  over  Tennessee  presented in  Figure  1  all  the  more  impressive.  When comparing student peer groups, Florida outpaces Tennessee by an ever wider margin.  Figure 2 compares the test scores of Tennessee and Florida students eligible for Free and Reduced-Price Lunch. In 2008-09, a family of four could have a maximum income of $39,220 to qualify for a reduced-price lunch, but approximately 80 percent of these students nationwide qualify for a free lunch, which required a maximum income of just $28,000.  Moreover, Florida’s students eligible for Free or Reduced-Price Lunches now tie the average for all students in Tennessee (see Figure 3).

In 1998, Tennessee’s African American students on average were performing about half a grade level higher than Florida’s African American students.  By  2009, however, Florida’s  African  American students  realized  a 25-point gain in average achievement, whereas African  American  students  in  Tennessee progressed by only four points (see  Figure  5).

Florida did not achieve such impressive academic growth and results with any single reform, but rather with a multifaceted strategy.  Reform highlights include:

  • Florida grades all district and charter schools based on overall academic performance and student learning gains. Schools earn letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F, which parents can easily interpret.
  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program allows 28,000 low-income students to attend the school of their parents’ choice—both private (tuition assistance) and public (transportation assistance for district school transferees).
  • The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program stands as the nation’s largest school voucher program, sending more than 21,000 students with special needs to the public or private school of their parents’ choice.
  • Florida has the largest virtual school program in the nation, with more than 80,000 students taking one or more courses online.
  • Florida has an active charter school program, with 375 charter schools serving more than 131,000 students.
  • Florida curtailed the social promotion of students out of the third grade—if a child cannot read, the default becomes that he or   she will repeat the grade until he or she demonstrates basic skills, which can result in mid-year promotion.
  • Florida created genuine alternative teacher certification paths in which adult professionals   can demonstrate content knowledge in order to obtain a teaching license. Half of Florida’s new teachers now come through alternative routes.

 

Consider also alternative teacher certification’s importance to disadvantaged children. Allowing more people with degrees to demonstrate content knowledge and join the teaching profession expands the possible pool from which to recruit high-quality teachers. Inner-city children suffer the most from the shortage of high-quality teachers, as the system favors suburban schools in recruiting and retaining effective instructors. Thus, inner-city children gain the most from reducing this shortage.

In addition, Florida’s system of accountability grades schools with A, B, C, D, or F labels, which many complained was cruel to schools with predominantly minority student bodies.  A small but vocal group continues to bemoan the grading system, claiming that it is unfair to teachers and students.  It would prove difficult to be any more tragically mistaken. To be sure, rating schools A through F in Florida represents tough medicine:  The state called out underperforming schools in a way that everyone could instantly grasp.

But tough love is still love.  Florida’s schools began to improve, both on Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), and on NAEP (a source of external validation for the state exam). Did Florida’s D and F schools wither under the glare of public shame?  Quite the opposite: those   schools focused their resources on improving academic achievement.   Made aware of the problems in their low-performing schools, communities rallied to their aid. People volunteered their time to tutor struggling students.  Improving academic performance and thus the school’s grade became a focus.

With such strong improvement, it is entirely appropriate to ask:  Are the gains in Figure 6 real?  A number of states around the country have lowered the “cut scores” on their state accountability exams in order to create the appearance of improvement.  (The “cut score” being the minimum passing score students can achieve.) Florida did not make the FCAT easier to pass, maintaining a constant standard.  Harvard professor Paul Peterson has demonstrated that Florida has indeed maintained the integrity of the FCAT (although  the  test  does  receive  a  C grade  from  Peterson  in  terms  of  its  difficulty).

Unfortunately, the same study by Peterson showed that Tennessee has among the lowest standards in the country, earning an F grade for how its exam, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), compares with NAEP.  TCAP not only receives an F grade on the most  recent  comparisons  between  the  fourth- and   eighth-grade math and reading NAEP exams,  it has done so consistently on all such comparisons with NAEP since 2003.

Both Florida and Tennessee should improve the rigor of their exams.  But it is TCAP,  however, that  represents  the  crueler  joke  on  children craving to learn and to be challenged.  Florida’s  schools  improved  their rankings because  their  students  learned  to  read  at  a higher  level  and  became  more  proficient  at math. Those who wanted to continue to coddle underperforming   schools,  although perhaps well intentioned, argued in favor of consigning hundreds of thousands of Florida children to illiteracy.  They may not have realized it at the time, but one cannot avoid the conclusion now.

In summary, those with the least consistently gained the most from Florida’s reforms. This is perhaps clearest of all when one examines the formula for assigning letter grades to schools.

Specifically, initial evidence suggests that ending social promotion, increasing school accountability, and expanding parental choice in education are contributing to improved academic achievement and public school performance.

More  broadly,  the  Florida  experience  shows that the proper mix of reforms can lead to levels of academic achievement for disadvantaged students that many have argued are impossible without  massive  increases  in  public  spending.

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