It can be easy to lose track of Florida’s accomplishments after a decade-plus of education reform. True, money for public education has plummeted over the past five years as the state experienced a severe economic downturn. And, yes, there’s still too much teaching to the FCAT, though that test will be changing to common score standards for year-end exams on key subjects, a better gauge of student learning.
Still, Florida students’ scores not only have been improving on national standardized tests, but now there are strong signs that students are showing up their cohorts internationally.
A recent international education study put Florida’s fourth-graders virtually at the top of 53 school systems in the world when it comes to reading comprehension. Florida’s average score in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) was 569 — the U.S. average score was 556 in reading — and only Hong Kong had a higher score at 571, which is not statistically significant.
That’s a crucial mark of excellence — just four years ago Florida’s fourth-graders ranked ninth in reading.
In math and science, Florida’s fourth-graders ranked ninth among 57 participating international education systems in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The Sunshine State once again was ahead of the U.S. average score of 541. The state’s eighth-graders also ranked ninth in math among 56 participating school systems, with several U.S. states that invest more in public education — Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Carolina among them — edging out Florida in the international rankings.
Locally, South Florida students are excelling, too. This past school year not a single Miami-Dade or Broward County public school received a D or F grade from the state based on FCAT scores, graduation rates and participation in advanced-placement courses.
The state scores, released in December, show that 63 percent of Miami-Dade schools earned an A grade — 88 percent had an A or B score. In Broward, 69 percent of schools earned an A, and 82 percent had an A or B.
South Florida’s two major counties outperformed every other school system in the state.
That didn’t happen by accident. There has been a concerted effort, particularly in Miami-Dade public schools, which earned the prestigious Broad Prize last year, to put more community resources into struggling schools. Top teachers and administrators, tutoring programs like CityYear and adult mentors helped students achieve.
Of course, the state’s constantly changing bar on educational excellence carries handicaps. New grading methods became so confusing and convoluted last year that the state limited negative grade changes to one letter grade when it became clear that too many students were failing because of the new grading method. Schools that had a B the previous year and dropped precipitously only would have scored a C this past school year, for example.
Without that grade curve, state officials said three more Florida schools would have earned an F. As it is, 14 Florida schools got a D and three received an F — but none of them in Miami-Dade or Broward.
With that recognition should come extra funding for schools that improved their scores and for teachers, who will receive bonuses. Public schools that improve their scores also experience more engaged students coming back to their neighborhood schools — building pride in our community.