Florida Defeats the Skeptics: Test Scores Show Genuine Progress in the Sunshine State

Article excerpt

Florida's gains in reading and math achievement, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress

Among the 50 states, Florida's gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) between 1992 and 2011 ranked second only to Maryland's (see "Is the U.S. Catching Up?" features, page 24). Florida's progress has been particularly impressive in the early grades. In 1998, Florida scored about one grade level below the national average on the 4th-grade NAEP reading test, but it was scoring above that average by 2003, and made further gains in subsequent years (see Figure 1). Scores on Florida's own state examinations revealed an equally dramatic upward trend.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Many have cited the series of accountability and choice reforms that Florida adopted between 1998 and 2006, under the leadership of Governor Jeb Bush, as the driving force behind the large and rapid improvement in student achievement (see "Advice for Education Reformers: Be Bold!" features, page 58). Others have insisted that Florida's NAEP scores do not represent true improvements in student reading achievement. Boston College professor Walter Haney, for example, argues that the scores are "dubious" and "highly misleading." He contends that it is "abundantly clear" that Florida's aggregate test-score improvements are a mirage caused by changes in the students enrolled in the 4th grade after the state began holding back a large number of 3rd-grade students in 2004 (all school years are reported by the year in which they ended). His argument has been touted by other researchers, most notably by some at the National Education Policy Center, and it has been cited in testimony presented before state legislatures considering the adoption of Florida-style reforms.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is certainly true, as Haney has said, that one of the Florida reforms was to curtail social promotion of underachieving students from 3rd to 4th grade. In most school districts, students who do not warrant promotion on academic grounds move on to the next grade regardless, because many educators believe that keeping students with their peer group is desirable. But in Florida, those students who completed 3rd grade in the spring of 2003 and since have had to meet a minimum threshold on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) reading examination in order to be promoted to the 4th grade, unless they receive a special waiver. As a result, the percentage of students retained in 3rd grade increased substantially. In the two years prior to the policy change, only 2.9 percent of 3rd-grade students were retained, while in the two years following the policy's implementation, 11.7 percent of Florida's 3rd-grade students were told they had to remain in the same grade for the coming year.

Haney and others have concluded that this policy change artificially drove up 4th-grade test scores, because it removed from the cohort of students tested those who were retained in 3rd grade, the very students most likely to score the lowest on standardized tests. Although the point would seem to be well worth considering, it has not been subjected to serious empirical analysis. Does the holding back of the lowest-performing students in 3rd grade explain all the 4th-grade gains in Florida, as Haney contends? Does it explain some of the gains? Or none at all? The best way to answer the question is to look at changes in student test-score performance among those in 3rd grade for the first time, as their test scores are unaffected by the retention policy. If the gains observed for 4th graders were a function of differences in the type of students entering that grade due to the retention policy, then the performance of those entering 3rd grade should look essentially the same after 2002 as it did before the retention policy was put into place.

Drawing on information on student performance available from the Florida Department of Education, I was able to analyze test-score trends of students enrolled in the 3rd grade for the first time. …