Florida's decade-long climb out of the national cellar in education has hit a snag.
For the second testing cycle in a row, the state's scores on a closely watched national test mostly stalled in reading and math, according to results released Tuesday.
The data "shows performance has plateaued," former Gov. Jeb Bush, who heads two education foundations, said in a written statement.
"Really disappointing," said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the Orlando-based parents group, Fund Education Now.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card," is given every two years to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in every state.
The latest results show Florida students at roughly the same place they were in 2009 in both grades and subjects. With the exception of eighth-grade reading, the 2009 results were roughly the same as the 2007 results.
A Florida Department of Education press release did not acknowledge the results of the past two NAEP cycles, instead noting Florida's previous gains and its "upward progress."
The state spent much of the past decade logging in some of the biggest advances in the nation.
The rise from the bottom tier of states drew a spotlight to the state's education reforms, particularly a suite of controversial changes that were slammed into place after Bush took office in 1999. A handful of states are now copying the "Florida model."
But the latest NAEP results will give critics fresh ammo.
To some, the latest results will be proof that Florida's gains were more flash than substance — less a result of school grades and vouchers than a focus on test taking and a 2003 law requiring struggling third-graders to be held back, which boosted fourth-grade scores.
To others, it will be proof that recent, historic cuts in state education spending have done damage. Since 2007, state funding for public education has dropped from $7,126 to $6,268 per student.
"The NAEP scores stopped moving while we were having (budget cuts)," said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, an outspoken member of the House Education Committee. "I think there's a direct correlation there."
"Chronic de-funding … is coming home to roost," said Oropeza, whose group charged the state in a pending lawsuit with failing to provide high-quality schools.
Sherman Dorn, a University of South Florida researcher who keeps close tabs on education changes in Florida, said there are multiple explanations for the stall. It could be budget cuts. It could be that students and families were hard hit by the recession. It could be that policy changes over the past decade only moved the needle so far.
"I have no clue what the right (explanation) would be," he said.
State Board of Education chair Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa said she had not looked at the latest NAEP data enough to draw conclusions. She defended Bush-era policy changes, but didn't discount the impact of declining funding.
She pointed specifically to a drop in the number of reading coaches, which were a Bush priority. "The budget cuts have had an impact," she said.
Nationally, both fourth- and eighth-graders were up in math, but barely. Reading results were mixed: fourth graders stayed in place; eighth graders made slight gains.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement the scores were cause for "concern as much as optimism."
"It's clear," he said, "that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation's children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.