Florida schools No. 10 in the country? Seriously? There was a lot of snickering last year when a highly regarded newspaper came to that conclusion.
But Education Week's latest annual rankings, released this morning, put Florida at No. 8.
Researchers at the newspaper caution that it's dicey to make year-to-year comparisons, because they look at slightly different indicators every year. They also did not update what is arguably the most important piece of their analysis: the national test scores and graduation rates that gauge student progress.
But as a broad measure, they say their report shows Florida is headed in the right direction.
"Is that a success story for policy in general? I don't know. We don't go there," said Amy Hightower, who is the project director for the annual Quality Counts report. But "over the years, we've seen your achievement climb."
Getting better, though, doesn't mean good enough, said Jon Mills, a University of Florida law school dean who helped file a lawsuit in November that charges Florida with violating the state constitution by not providing high-quality schools.
"We may be one of the most improved in the country," said Mills, a former Democratic speaker of the House. "But if we move from No. 50 to No. 40, that still isn't high quality."
Last year's Education Week report was highly touted by Gov. Charlie Crist and Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith, and it's likely they will do the same with the latest report. But it's not likely the report will end deep rifts over the state's education policies, or sway residents who have long been told that Florida schools are subpar.
"People who don't want to believe it, no matter what evidence you present, will still not believe it," said T. Willard Fair, chairman of the state Board of Education and a close ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Education Week's report is widely cited and considered by many to be a credible measure of a state's education system. Its rankings are based on a mix of factors, including policies, school funding and student achievement. On the latter, it considers not only overall scores, but how much a state has improved and how much it has narrowed achievement gaps for low-income students.
Florida earned a B- grade — better than the national average of C- and ahead of every state but Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Nevada finished last, behind Nebraska, South Dakota and Mississippi.
(Technically, Hightower noted Wednesday, Florida ranked No. 11 last year. A rounding of point totals made it appear as if it was in a tie at No. 10 with Arkansas.)
The Quality Counts report issues separate grades in six categories, but it does not update every category each year. This year's report was supposed to include 2009 data for K-12 student achievement, but it did not because national reading scores were not released in the fall as expected.
Based on 2007 data, Florida ranks No. 7 in student achievement.
The only rankings that include 2009 achievement data are from a "math progress index" that the newspaper created for its latest report. Among other factors, it includes scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as NAEP, that were released in the fall.
On that index, Florida gets high marks for improving NAEP scores and getting more middle school students to take algebra. But it gets dinged for weak progress on advance placement math tests and for having too many middle school math teachers who don't have a major or minor in math. Overall rank: No. 9.
In other areas, Florida came in at No. 5 in standards and accountability and No. 4 on policies aimed at improving teaching.
On school finance, it was No. 31. But that section was based on 2007 figures — before the Legislature began cutting deeply into the state education budget.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.