The U.S. Department of Education recently released the latest round of reading scores from its national testing program. The results show impressive gains in Florida. This gives us some important confirmation that students in Florida are seeing real improvement under the education reforms of the past few years.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a standardized test given periodically to a national sample of students in select grades. NAEP is often called “The Nation’s Report Card.” Florida ranks fifth in improvement in fourth-grade reading out of 37 states for which scores are available both in 2002 and in 1998, the last time the reading test was given. Florida’s improvement in eighth-grade reading scores was even more impressive, ranking second out of 34 states.
This means that Florida education has improved faster than in almost any other state since the NAEP was last given. The major event in Florida education in that time has been the implementation of two major school reform movements: accountability and choice.
Accountability reforms are those that rely on high-stakes testing. Students and schools are rewarded for good test scores and faced with sanctions for poor test scores. Student accountability is intended to ensure that students get the training in basic skills they need before they leave school, while school accountability is designed to give schools the right incentives to perform well. In Florida, since 1998 accountability has taken the form of the FCAT exam. Students must now pass the FCAT to advance to fourth grade and to graduate from high school, while schools are given grades based on their FCAT performance that are in turn connected to funding and, for failing schools, potential state control.
Choice reforms are designed to give parents options beyond just one assigned school. Some reforms create choice within the public system, such as allowing students to attend public schools other than those they are assigned to, and the creation of charter schools. Other reforms extend choice beyond the public system by enabling parents to send their children to private schools on a voucher. Both kinds of choice not only provide better services to students, they also provide public schools with a strong incentive to improve their own performance, and thus keep students from walking out the door. Florida has a large charter-school program, along with three sizable voucher programs enacted since the last NAEP administration in 1998.
The new NAEP scores also show that throwing more money at education without structural reforms doesn’t produce results. Florida made top-tier gains on NAEP despite school spending increases over the same period that ranked 47th in the nation. Meanwhile, big-spending states that haven’t made significant reforms showed lackluster gains in NAEP scores. Of the five states that have made the largest increases in per-pupil education spending since 1998, counting only states in which test scores are available, three states have neither school choice nor tough accountability programs. These three states (Rhode Island, Wyoming and New Mexico) ranked in the bottom half of the nation in NAEP score gains. States with the highest absolute level of spending (rather than the biggest spending increases) but no serious education reforms also landed in the bottom half of the nation.
The new NAEP results should encourage Florida to stand by education reforms as they come under louder and more strident attacks from the defenders of the status quo. While it is reasonable to allow seniors to graduate despite failing the FCAT exam if they have good SAT scores, Florida should resist other policy changes that might allow students without basic skills to get diplomas or that would limit parents’ ability to choose their children’s schools. The Nation’s Report Card shows that real reform has brought real results, while states that just throw money at the problem are falling behind.