Florida is NOT a Benchmark!

Which of the following statements is true?

A. The Dallas Cowboys are the best team in the NFL.
B. Justin Bieber is a positive role model.
C. Superintendent Barresi cares about what we think.
D. Florida is the benchmark for excellence in education.
E. None of the above.

Unless you are a real Dallas Cowboy “homer,” Justin Bieber’s mom, a member of Superintendent Barresi’s inner circle, or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, I suspect you likely chose answer E.

Agh, I do wish the Cowboys would get it figured out one of these years!

Of course, it is very difficult to present evidence to conclusively support any of these claims. Despite that, there will always be those who will be undeterred by the lack of data and make these kind of assertions with absolute clarity and passion.

They would still be wrong.

As reported by oktruths, during Dr. Barresi’s carefully staged “press conference” on the 3rd grade retention law yesterday, Barresi made the claim that, “Ten years ago, Florida had lower reading scores than Oklahoma. Now they are higher than we are.”

If Dr. Barresi is using the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) assessments as her supporting evidence, she is partially correct.

In 2003, Florida’s eighth grade students earned a reading score of 257, five points lower than Oklahoma’s 262. In 2013, Oklahoma remains at 262 while Florida has risen to 266, a nine-point climb. The national scores for eighth grade reading have increased from 261 to 266 over the same period. This does not reflect well on Oklahoma.

Yet, Barresi’s statement is not completely accurate if we look at fourth grade scores. Over the same ten-year period (2003-2013), Florida’s scores increased from 218 to 227; Oklahoma’s increased from 214 to 217; and the national composite increased from 216 to 221. In short, Florida started higher but has also exceeded the growth rate for both Oklahoma and the nation.

Florida’s growth rates on the NAEP since 1990 are actually pretty impressive.

According to a November 8 article from the website redefinED, Florida’s gains since 1990 best the national gains in 38 of 40 measured categories.

However, it should be noted that a significant portion of this growth occurred in the five years prior to Governor Bush taking office in 1999. The passage of the third grade retention law in 2002 may have contributed to the increase as well. However, it is difficult to attribute these gains solely to passage of this legislation. The Florida legislature also simultaneously committed hundreds of millions of NEW funding for early education and resources for reading remediation. It is also rarely reported that these increases tend to disappear as students move through the rest of their academic careers.

Boston College Professor Walter Haney took a closer look at the Florida NAEP scores since 2003 and has made some troubling alternate conclusions. The following is a summary of Haney’s research as discussed on Fairtest.com:

Florida has been forcing unprecedented numbers of minority pupils to repeat third grade, on the order of 10 to 12 percent, meaning that fewer low-scoring students enter grade 4 at the normal age.

In a report titled, “Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap),” Haney wrote, “It turns out that the apparent dramatic gains in grade 4 NAEP math results are simply an indirect reflection of the fact that in 2003-04, Florida started flunking many more students, disproportionately minority students, to repeat grade 3.” Percentages of minority students flunked were two to three times larger than percentages of white children forced to repeat grade 3. Haney says this likely explains the striking decrease in the race-based score gap.

Haney notes that making students repeat a grade based on test scores has been shown by many researchers to be ineffective at improving achievement over the long-term (see “Grade Retention,” this issue). It does produce increased scores in the repeated grade, and in some studies it has shown to produce increased scores in the subsequent year or two. This means that students who enter grade four after spending a second year in third grade are likely to score somewhat higher than if they had not repeated grade 3. But within a few years any academic gains disappear, as Chicago researchers documented in that city (see Examiner, Spring-Summer 2004)

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how students in Florida have performed on national tests of college readiness over this same time period. After all, isn’t creating “college- and career-ready citizens” the whole purpose behind these reforms passed by Jeb Bush and his followers?

Remember that Governor Bush was in office from 1999 through 2007. Since the passage of the third grade retention law in 2002, the original students impacted by this law have now moved through high school.

So, what does the ACT tell us about the long-term success of the Florida reforms?


It is not a pretty picture, is it? In 1999, Florida’s students (20.6) were only 0.4 points below the national average ACT composite of 21.0. Since that time, the gap has increased to 1.3 points. On the other hand, Oklahoma had an identical 20.6 composite in 1999, but has edged forward to 20.8, only 0.1 off the national average.

Florida’s students also continue to perform below the national average on the SAT college entrance exam, mirroring results from the ACT test. In 2003, the mean scores for verbal and math in Florida were both 498. In 2013, these scores had dropped to 492 and 490 respectively. At the same time, the national average scores remain well above Florida at 507 (verbal) and 519 (math).

When asked about the declines experienced by a Florida students on the ACT and SAT in recent years, newly appointed Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart stated, “While I am pleased that more students are thinking about college or a career, it is clear that we need to refocus our efforts on helping them be better prepared,” adding that “new standards will help students prepare for life after high school.”

In other words, if it’s not working, double down!

Another important lesson obtained from analysis of these college readiness tests is that the reforms associated with NCLB and its step-brother RTTT have done little to ameliorate the achievement gap in America.

Another analysis prepared by FairTest showed that during the years since the new SAT was unveiled, the average score (adding all three sections) of Asian-American applicants has gone up by 41 points, while the averages of all other groups have fallen, with white students falling only 4 points, and all other groups falling between 15 and 22 points.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the organization, said that these growing gaps showed that the testing-based education reforms that have been popular in recent years are not narrowing the divides among various ethnic and racial groups, as testing advocates have argued that they would.

So, here we are in 2013 ready to embark on yet another one of Florida’s (Jeb Bush’s) poorly researched reforms. Like the Sunshine State, our state may also see initial gains on the NAEP. However, as students are impacted by this retention policy and the associated hyper-emphasis on high stakes testing, we should not be surprised if our ACT and SAT scores also begin to trend downward over the next ten years.

This is the real lesson from Florida to which very few seem to be paying attention.

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5 thoughts on “Florida is NOT a Benchmark!

  1. Thank you for your efforts.While Supt Baressi seems to enjoy administering these laws, they are laws.She has threatened people the past two weeks showing a little nervousness.
    The next supt will enforce these same laws. Taunting supt Baressi is becoming a sport. To protect our children from the humiliation of being identified as failing we must look to the legislature. We do not know how to teach all children how to read fluently.

  2. If you increase the number of students you retain the average age of your 4th graders increases. I wonder if their growth matches the increase in age. If a 12 year old is in the 4th grade reading on the 4th grade level he is still behind.

  3. I love it when people dig deep and don’t stop at the first shiny study that catches their eye. This is an astute analysis, providing us with sound research on short-term and long-term effects of policies. Much of this we knew before they passed the 3rd grade retention law (we’ve known it since Chicago and New York tried it and abandoned it due to bad outcomes), but our policy askers blithely ignored the evidence. The info from the Florida ACT/SAT scores is both enlightening and troubling.

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