Saturday, November 18, 2017
Editorials

Florida's fourth-graders measure up globally

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For the first time, Florida's fourth-graders have taken a reading test that allows direct comparisons with students around the world. The good news, in results released last week, is that Sunshine State students came in second in the world. Only fourth-graders in Hong Kong did better — and even that difference is insignificant — and Florida's students also beat the U.S. average. The best news, however, is not this single snapshot but that Florida has seen the importance of weighing its student achievement against the rest of the world. Global competition is the way of the future, and goals — and measures of progress — need to be taken in that context.

The specific comparison is called the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, and it tests fourth-graders on the same material in more than 40 countries (and in some smaller educational systems that chose to take part such as Florida and Ontario). Students were examined for their ability to read for literacy experience as well as to use and acquire information in multiple choice and open-ended questions.

The test was given in 2001, 2006 and last year, so a global baseline has been established. In the United States, a representative sample of students was tested, so the results are valid for the nation. But only Florida took part as a state, which means it can weigh itself against the United States and other nations but that state-by-state comparisons are not possible. Despite Florida's good result, it stretches the imagination to assume that many other states wouldn't have outperformed it, and since this was Florida's first time taking part, it has no history to compare.

These are only some of the reasons to be careful in assessing what the test can and can't tell us. Florida's education officials wisely are using federal Race to the Top money to take part in three such international tests — the two others are the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which measures the abilities of fourth- and eighth-graders — and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which measures 15-year-olds' reading, math and science skills.

People should be cautious about overstating the significance of Florida's results on any one of these tests. But taken together, they will demonstrate how well the state's students are competing against the world's classroom. And since they use randomized samples, they don't require the state's entire school system to shut down and lose instruction time simply for yet another assessment. These tests check the overall system, not the individual student. Unlike some other standardized testing in Florida's schools, these will do a good job of giving the state's educational system an honest grade.

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