The Nature of Florida’s Public Education Failure

The Nature of Florida’s Public Education Failure

An editorial in the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday uses the results of the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report to attempt to make a case against Florida’s passion for testing our public school students. The case is compelling in part, but it also blurs a larger national pattern for the sake of condemning our test-happy public education system.

The editorial is correct (and, indeed, arguably understates the case) with regard to Florida’s seniors’ overall poor performance in math and reading. The scale score for mathematics for Florida’s high school seniors is below the national average and below that of nine states (out

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of 13 for which there are test scores available). That result is statistically significant for national average and for all nine states . . . meaning that, even accounting for what scholars call “random error,” it is highly likely (95% probable) that the true score of Florida really is below that of the nation as a whole and these nine states. While, as the editorial notes, Florida’s score and the national average on reading are in a statistical tie, there are statistically significant differences showing that eight of the 15 states for which there are results are superior in reading to Florida.

All of that is clearly bad news, especially when tied (again, correctly) to the overall pattern for Florida of underperforming over the years of the NAEP tests.

At this point, one might not be able to demonstrate that our testing activity is responsible for our failure, but neither could one easily demonstrate that all of this testing has somehow made Florida’s schools better.

But the editorial goes on to highlight selected gaps in the performance of racial and ethnic minorities, noting that “Sixty percent of Florida’s African-American seniors were below basic in math skills, as were 49 percent of Hispanic students. Black students’ average scores were 24 points lower than white students’, a gap unchanged from 2009 through last year.”

Those numbers indicate a persistent and serious problem. Given the way the editorial is written, one might imagine that this gap in Florida is worse than elsewhere. This would seem to provide more evidence of failure in comparison to the nation as a whole.

But the actual results tell a somewhat different story. There isn’t a statistically significant difference between the performance of Florida’s African-American seniors in mathematics and the nation’s average performance for African-Americans, nor between the performance of African-American seniors in Florida and that in any of the nine other states for which data is available. Florida’s score actually is nominally above the national average and the majority of the other states (6 out of 9), though, again, this result is not statistically significant. In reading, African-American seniors in five states have higher scores than Florida’s (only one difference, Connecticut’s, is statistically significant) and four states have lower scores.

As for Hispanics, the results are a bit better still. Florida’s Hispanic seniors are nominally above the national average and a total of five of the nine other states in mathematics. In one case (Tennessee), the difference is statistically significant. In reading, our Hispanic seniors are nominally better than every one of the nine other states for which results are available (the difference between Florida’s score and the national average for Hispanics actually is statistically significant).

What’s the point?

The point is that there are two separate indictments of Florida’s public education system here. One, the overall lack of progress vis-à-vis other states, has pretty good support. The other, a uniquely serious racial/ethnic achievement gap, does not.

I don’t make this case to suggest that the achievement gap based on race and ethnicity isn’t a serious problem in Florida. It is, just as it is in the rest of the nation.

It’s just that using that gap to challenge Florida’s particular approach to public education doesn’t square with the available evidence.

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