Florida's report card better

Vast improvement in school performances still leaves the state with a grade of C+.

By RON MATUS and DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writers
Published January 10, 2008

Florida ranks among the leading states when it comes to improving national test scores in reading and math, increasing the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams and boosting the academic performance of poor kids, according to a national report released Wednesday.

The annual report by highly regarded Education Week magazine also concluded that Florida's high school graduation rate - while still dismal and near the bottom of the pack nationally - is improving faster than every state but one.

Overall, the magazine awarded Florida a C+, slightly above the national average of C. No state earned an A.

Point-wise, Florida came in at No. 14, just behind Vermont.

"We certainly are on the right track" but more work must be done, said Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, who began serving last month. "A grade of C plus is not what I would want my kid to bring home from school. ...We'd like to be the first A."

Some of Education Week's highlights are at odds with the pessimistic perceptions many parents have about Florida schools. The report is also something of a final report card for Jeb Bush, who left the Governor's Office last year after eight years of sweeping and controversial change in education.

With the legislative session two months away, calls are mounting for an overhaul of Bush's system, which hinges on the unpopular Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. And yet, some outside observers say, the trend lines noted in Wednesday's report suggest some of Bush's policies may be working - and that building on them might be more in order than a revamp.

"Holding schools accountable for improvement has helped raise education levels in Florida. There's no doubt about it," said Alan Richard, a spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group based in Atlanta. "That said, state policymakers are struggling with what's next."

Education Week's grading formula includes a long list of factors, including student achievement, school funding, and standards and accountability. Florida got an A- for accountability, a C for K-12 achievement and a B for efforts to improve teaching. In school finance, it got a C-, with its per-pupil spending coming in at No. 39.

On the student factors, the magazine considered not only where Florida stands relative to other states, but how much it has improved.

In eighth-grade reading, for example, Florida ranked No. 31 last year in the percentage of students considered proficient. But in terms of gains since 2003, Florida ranked fourth.

In closing the poverty gap, Florida ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading and fifth in eighth-grade math.

In the percentage of students passing high-caliber AP exams, it ranked sixth. In terms of increasing the percentage passing, it ranked eighth.

The magazine's conclusions about Florida's grad rates were the biggest stunner.

It determined Florida had a rate of 60.5 percent in 2004, putting it 45th nationally. But the magazine also found the rate had grown 10.6 percentage points since 2000, making Florida second only to Tennessee in improvement.

State Rep. Dan Gelber, a leading critic of Bush's education program, didn't put much stock in the magazine's grad rate numbers, noting they were at odds with the findings of other researchers. He also said Wednesday's report failed to examine the effect Bush's policies have had on curriculum, which many educators say has narrowed because the FCAT has forced schools to focus more on the basics.

"We cannot spin our way out of Florida's enormous education challenges," he said. "Many independent groups have rated and ranked our efforts, and almost without exception we end up at or near the bottom of the heap in too many categories."

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