Florida's fourth- and eighth-graders continue to inch upward in math and reading, but their performance compared with students in other states was mixed, according to this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the Nation's Report Card."
In the exams — given to about 3,000 students in each of the two grades in every state — fourth-graders in Florida climbed only a couple of points on a 500-point scale since 2011, when NAEP tests were last administered. The gain is considered statistically insignificant.
But they did surpass the national average score, with higher percentages of students in all demographic groups demonstrating "proficient" or "advanced" knowledge in reading and math.
Eighth-graders did have statistically significant growth in their math and reading results, and equaled the national average score in reading. But they fell short of the national average in math.
More work remains to push Florida students to the top of the nation, said Jane Fletcher, director of accountability for the Florida Department of Education. Between 60 and 70 percent of those tested in the state are still at the "basic" and "below basic" levels.
"We should be looking toward proficient and advanced," Fletcher said, referring to the top two achievement levels. But "we need to get them to basic before we can get them to proficient."
The scores represent one of the few measures taken in every state, allowing for comparisons that state exams such as the FCAT do not allow.
Bob Schaeffer of Fair Test, a vocal opponent of high-stakes testing, called the NAEP "one reasonably sound tool to assess overall U.S. academic performance." He noted that it does not carry high stakes, making it less subject to manipulation, and said the test questions are generally better than those on most state exams.
Combined with other pieces of data, Schaeffer said, NAEP helps create a useful "big picture" of education in the country.
That big picture indicates improvement over time, said Jack Buckley, National Center for Education Statistics commissioner. He observed that the results nationally for fourth- and eighth-graders were higher than at any point since the scores came to be in the early 1990s, even though the annual rise was just a point or two.
The average national fourth-grade math score, for instance, was 213 in 1990, 241 in 2011 and 242 in 2013.
"The gains tend to be small," Buckley said, "but over the long run they stack up."
Asked to explain the gains, Buckley demurred.
"NAEP is very good at telling us where we stand," he said. "But it is a study that is not very well designed to tell us why."
He noted that each state has different policies and education models that would influence the results.
As reasons for the gains by Florida students, Fletcher pointed to the state's long record of working to reduce the achievement gap among demographic groups, and aiming to bring up the lowest performers.
"Florida has for a long time been focused on trying to work with all students to move them forward," she said, adding that the state's accountability system helps identify where to pay attention.
Like most states, Florida is implementing Common Core standards, which are touted as one way to make it easier to determine whether students are meeting national and international academic levels. New tests to go with Common Core are expected to give states another way to compare their results.
Buckley said he did not expect the NAEP to go away in the transformation. In fact, he said, the next round of scores could help determine whether Common Core is making a difference.
"If you want to measure change, don't change the measure," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. Follow him on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.