2011 NAEP: Florida Finally Hits a Wall

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida Age of Public School Improvement hit a wall in the 2011 NAEP. This should not be terribly surprising, as Florida’s improvement seemed certain to plateau in the absence of additional reforms.

Governor Jeb Bush relentlessly pursued a dual strategy- transparency with teeth from the top down, parental choice from the bottom up. Together these reforms drove improvement in the public schools for a number of years.  Accountability measures included school grading (A-F) and earned promotion in the early grades. Parental choice measures included Opportunity Scholarships for children attending F rated schools, the nation’s first special needs voucher program (McKay Scholarships), the nation’s largest scholarship tax credit program (Step Up for Students), a decent charter school law and the nation’s most robust system of digital learning. Florida lawmakers also attempted to thoughtfully incentivize success.

Governor Bush took office in 1999 and left office in 2007. It would be nice if these efforts could indefinitely push progress forward, but there have been plenty of bumps and problems along the way. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court rendered a logic-free ruling abolishing Opportunity Scholarships (failing school vouchers) for private schools, and followed that up by ruling against a state authorizer for charter schools. Tax-credits, McKay and digital learning continued to incrementally advance, but not at an earth-shattering rate.

The larger problem may have come in the top down measures. The chart below presents the distribution of district and charter school grades, with one line being the A/B grades and the other D/F grades. The dotted lines represent instances when the state board raised school grading standards.

The setting of these standards represents far more of an art than a science. Set them far too high and disaster follows (this happened in Arizona). Set them too low, and you remove the tension in the system needed to drive improvement. Even after the last increase in grading standards, more than 10 times as many Florida schools received A/B grades as D/F grades.

Florida’s policymakers raised standards four times, and last year (wisely) put in an automatic trigger to raise standards by a preset amount when a certain ratio of schools get A or B grades. In addition, a fresh set of reforms passed the Florida legislature in 2011, revamping teaching and increasing charter school and digital learning options.

Just as it is impossible to exactly pinpoint how much of what caused the gains, it is likewise impossible to say exactly what made them stall. Note however that one of the favorite explanations of the anti-reform crowd, the pre-school, finally saw the advent of children old enough to have participated in the program and age into the 4th grade NAEP sample. I hope that someone is carefully studying variation in participation and corresponding trends in FCAT data, but the results at the aggregate level thus far seem underwhelming.

Plenty of other things, however, have been going on- including the collapse of a housing bubble, cutbacks in public school funding (including of some of the incentive funding programs) and a variety of other very bad things. My advice to Florida policymakers: roll up your sleeves and get back at it. Despite the enormous amount of progress seen on NAEP (and no one loves celebrating it more than me) too great of a gulf lies between a state system awarding ten times as many top grades as low grades but still  suffering from large minorities of students scoring below basic on the NAEP exams.

Governor Bush has consistently said for years that success is never final, and reform is never finished. The 2011 pause in progress demonstrates that he called it correctly.  Moving the needle on student learning on a meaningful scale and at a sustained basis represents one of the greatest public policy challenges of our times. Governor Bush has passed the torch to a new generation of Florida reformers, and they must now find new ways, and fine-tune the old ways, to push academic progress forward.

Edited for typos

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4 Responses to 2011 NAEP: Florida Finally Hits a Wall

  1. Ayn Marie Samuelson says:

    The bureaucratic education system resists reforms, no matter how well intentioned, even at the “local” level in Florida.

    Sadly, our 10th graders have been stagnant on the annual FCAT in reading, and their performance on the NEAP in 12th grade shows more of the same.

    With regard to Florida’s education legislation, in the spring 2011 legislative session, numerous reforms were passed, including teacher evaluation. But are students’ test scores the right metric for evaluating teachers?

    Cato Institute Arnold Kling recently stated: “Many factors affect student test scores, meaning scores are a noisy indicator of teacher performance. People closest to the teacher, including peers, principals, and parents, have more information about teacher quality than what can be obtained by remote administrators relying on test scores.”

    The real question is: Will some of Florida’s new reforms be implemented to benefit those who are well-connected and grow the cost of the education system without the ultimate result of actually benefiting students?

  2. R Trepanner says:

    Florida NAEP scale scores stagnant over past 4 years
    By Sherman Dorn on November 1, 2011

    Just a quick note after perusing the inferred scale score means for the National Assessment of Educational Progress released this morning, which adds 2011 data. For fourth and eighth grades in reading and math, it looks as if the state has seen a general plateau over the past three test administrations. As has been the case for a number of years, the results for fourth grade are better than for eighth grade.

    NAEP is the best look we have at a general assessment that isn’t distorted by the stakes assigned to tests. It is not perfect, but it’s better than looking at state test results. And beyond that, you are as well-equipped to make specious speculative comments on “why the plateau” as I am. Go right ahead in comments…

    … [addendum 11/3] or, if you are Matthew Ladner, over at Jay Greene’s blog. I’ll stand by my statement here and to the St. Pete Times’ Ron Matus: any story you want to tell about the plateau is far more storytelling than documented.

    Posted in Education policy, Florida | 1 Response

  3. matthewladner says:

    Dorn is correct that no one can know why the plataeu happened. I said as much above.

    As for storytelling, let me know when anyone in my tribe resorts to ascribing gains to Harry Potter books, or to programs with beneficiaries too young to get into the available NAEP samples under discussion.

  4. [...] the NAEP exam (the national assessment that compares students in all the states) in Florida has increased from 53 percent in 1998 to over 70 percent in the last several years. Every year, Florida uses [...]

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