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Sorting out the truth in politics

Crist could improve his ranking of Florida schools

Gov. Charlie Crist says Florida has a good story to tell when it comes to K-12 education.

His evidence? State-by-state rankings from a reputable education publication.

"When I came in three years ago, according to Education Weekly, a well-respected national publication, it said that out of the 50 states Florida was ranked 31st. Thirty-first in K-12 education," Crist told members of the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee last week. "Last year my friends, we went from 31st to 14. And this year, the top 10 in America.

"These aren't my statistics. They're not from our Department of Education. They're from objective observers who gave us this ranking."

Crist means Education Week, not Weekly, but that's not really important. What is, is his claim that Florida's education ranking has improved dramatically from 2007 to 2009.

Does Crist have the rankings right?

Each January, Education Week produces a detailed state-by-state report that measures and compares states on a number of education benchmarks. It ranks states based on accountability, K-12 achievement, school finances and other categories. The report, which is published online as well as in print, then produces an overall ranking for each state, both as a letter and a number between 1 and 100.

We'll start with the most recent rankings and work backward. In Education Week's January 2009 report titled "Portraits of a Population," Florida received an overall letter score of B minus or a number score of 79.6. As Crist suggests, that score put Florida in a tie for 10th when compared to the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. Check.

We then turned to the 2008 report called "Tapping Into Teaching." There, Florida scored a C plus or 79.2 and ranked 14th in the country. Another check.

Finally, we looked at the 2007 report "From Cradle to Career." The 2007 report doesn't have the same overall ranking that is available for the 2008 and 2009 studies, but there is a ranking called the Chance For Success Index. The index, its authors say, was designed to measure the odds of success for a child who grows up in a particular state when compared to other states. Indicators include family income, a parent's education and employment, high school graduation rates, adult employment status and state annual income figures.

On that index, as Crist says, Florida ranked 31st nationwide. That year, Florida also ranked 31st in the publication's K-12 Achievement Index, which focuses explicitly on in-school learning.

Three reports, three years, three rankings — 31, 14, 10. C-h-e-c …

If only it were that simple.

Turns out, one of these numbers is not like the others.

Christopher B. Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, the not-for-profit organization that publishes Education Week, says Crist is referring to overall rankings for 2008 and 2009. But there is no overall ranking for 2007.

That's because the publication never produced one, Swanson says.

What was graded and ranked in 2007 are two specific categories, Chance For Success and K-12 Achievement. Those categories were then folded into the overall calculations and rankings for later years, Swanson said. Put another way, the 2007 rankings measured A and B, while the 2008 and 2009 numbers measured A, B, C, D and so on.

Crist shoehorned the numbers together.

"We generally advise against making strong statements about year-to-year comparisons because our framework/indicators generally changes at least a little bit," Swanson said. "This would particularly be true in the past couple years since we have made some major revisions to our research and grading framework."

But for argument's sake, let's compare years anyway. While it did not publish overall rankings each year, Education Week did publish state rankings for its Chance For Success and K-12 Achievement indexes in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Florida's Chance For Success ranking — which takes into account state graduation rates, employment opportunities and income potential — fell from 31, to 32, to 33 (not so good). The state's K-12 Achievement ranking — which measures only in-school learning — climbed from 31 in 2007 to 7 in 2008 and 7 again in 2009 (very good).

We understand all this can be confusing. The St. Petersburg Times made the same general assumption Crist did in a Jan. 7 report. In a story called "Schools gain national respect," the Times used Education Week rankings to say how Florida had jumped from 31 to 14 to 10.

Which brings us back to Crist's original statement. Crist is right that Education Week ranked Florida 31st in 2007, 14th in 2008 and 10th in 2009. But they're simply not comparable rankings. The publication didn't make an overall ranking in 2007 and says it has adjusted the ratings formula slightly each year. A cursory review would have revealed as much. And even if he missed it, the Orlando Sentinel put the rankings very much in doubt in September.

But there's plenty of good news to be found in the Education Week rankings. Florida's K-12 achievement ranks 7th in the country, and the state ranks 10th overall. That's certainly worth cheering and, we assume, part of the point Crist was trying to make to begin with. On the whole, he gets a Half True.

The statement

When Charlie Crist was elected governor, Florida ranked 31st in K-12 education. "Last year … we went from 31st to 14. And this year, the top 10 in America."

Gov. Charlie Crist, Dec. 14 at a meeting of Florida Republicans

The ruling

The annual studies the governor is referring to were all published by Education Week, but the studies didn't examine the same factors. In other words, the governor is comparing apples to oranges. We find Crist's claim Half True.

Crist could improve his ranking of Florida schools 12/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 11:13pm]
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