Florida students' test scores are up, but why?

The state made the most dramatic gains in the nation in reading and math in early grades. Former Gov. Jeb Bush calls it "another validation" of changes he implemented. But these scores are better at showing the what than explaining the why.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 26, 2007

Jeb Bush got the final report card on his education agenda Tuesday, and if nothing else, the results help explain why education politics in Florida are so complicated.

The sweeping changes Bush made to Florida's school system continue to be controversial and unpopular. And yet, the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a highly respected test often called "The Nation's Report Card," show that during the Bush era Florida made the most dramatic gains in the country in reading and math in the early grades.

In 1998, the year Bush was elected governor, Florida fourth-graders scored 5 percentage points below the national average in reading, and were wedged between South Carolina and Alabama among the lowest-ranked states. Only 53 percent of them could read at or above a basic level.

Fast forward to 2007: According to results released Tuesday, 70 percent of Florida fourth-graders now read at basic or above. That puts Florida 4 points above the national average, and in a tie at No. 19 with Wisconsin, Washington, Colorado and Idaho.

The national scores are "another validation that reforms are working," Bush, who left office in January, wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "We have gone from the bottom past the middle moving to the top."

In a written statement, Gov. Charlie Crist called the results "outstanding" and a clear sign that "holding schools accountable is making a positive impact."

But don't expect a celebration.

Sure, Florida has gotten better, conceded state Rep. Dan Gelber, a leading critic of Bush's education initiatives. But in only two subjects.

"Jeb got it half right," said Gelber, D-Miami. "If you measure it, it will be attended to. But the problem is, if you create a system that is so overwhelmingly focused on two things and nothing else, then that's all the system will attend to."

Test results don't reflect how much curricula have narrowed in Florida, Gelber said. Nor do they capture how much Bush's revamped system has set "minimal competence" rather than excellence as a goal.

The NAEP test pronounced "nape" is one of the few national yardsticks that allows states to compare their academic performance with one another and to gauge progress over time. It's periodically given in a variety of subjects, but most often in reading and math.

Many education experts consider NAEP the gold standard for measuring learning. The New York Times calls it the "strongest, most well-respected test in the country."

And unlike the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, students and teachers don't prep for it, and it's not tied to any rewards or sanctions.

This year's NAEP was administered in January to a statistically representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide, including about 19,000 students in 321 Florida schools.

The short-term results show Florida's elementary school students made sizable jumps, again, since the test was last given in 2005.

They also show that after years of stagnation, Florida middle-schoolers gained ground in reading, with a 5 percent spike in the number at basic or above.

Only Maryland showed a bigger gain in that area. And in that span, only a handful of other states showed significant progress in both grades.

"This clearly is an indication that initiatives focused on reading, such as Just Read, Florida! ... have a remarkable impact," said Education Commissioner Jeanine Blomberg.

Then again, statistics can be sliced and diced a thousand ways.

A look at long-term NAEP trends, for example, shows that math scores began to rise in Florida and other states in the early 1990s, said Sherman Dorn, an education historian and researcher at the University of South Florida.

"I don't think Bush can claim improvement for the early '90s," Dorn deadpanned.

It's difficult, too, to tease out which policy changes have had an effect on test scores, and to what extent. The cohort of Florida students who took the NAEP this year may have benefited from Bush reading initiatives; from the pressure put on teachers and principals by Bush's school grading system; or from better use of data to drive instruction.

On the other hand, they may have gotten a bounce from class-size reductions that were mandated by the 2002 constitutional amendment.

"That could be one of the factors, but you can't really isolate that," Blomberg said.

NAEP scores are better at showing what than why.

The latest numbers show Florida continues to outpace the country in reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Since 1998, Florida has reduced the white-black reading gap among fourth-graders at nearly twice the national rate, and the gap between poor and non-poor students at three times the national rate.

Tuesday's results made a big splash nationally, too.

The numbers show students making modest gains across the country, giving supporters of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act -- which is up for reauthorization in Congress -- their best evidence yet that the 5-year-old law is working.

"Student achievement is on the rise," U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a written statement.

Technically true, Dorn said. But among fourth-graders, it was rising faster in the four years before No Child than in the five years after.

Spellings is spinning the data "faster than an Elvis single," he said.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

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