Bright Futures standards could rise, hurting students of color — again

In Miami-Dade, 63 percent of black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students who qualify now for the top scholarship would lose eligibility under the proposed changes, compared to 40 percent of white students.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. [Steve Cannon | Associated Press (2016)]
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. [Steve Cannon | Associated Press (2016)]
Published April 23, 2019|Updated April 23, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s high school sophomores beware: Test scores required to qualify for the Bright Futures college scholarships may be changing again, this time for students who graduate in 2021 and beyond.

Bills moving through both chambers of the Florida Legislature propose to raise the required scores for who could get one of the merit-based scholarships. For students who would receive the “Academic” scholarship, which covers full tuition and fees at state universities and colleges, the required SAT score will rise from 1290 to around 1330. For the second-tier “Medallion” award which covers 75 percent of tuition and fees, the benchmark would climb from 1170 to about 1200.

The specific number for the new scores would be set by the Department of Education based on national averages.

Senate bill sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel has said the change is in keeping with the “integrity” of that’s scholarship’s purpose to award only students whose scores fall into a certain percentile compared to the national average. The College Board changed the SAT in 2016, including taking away the quarter-point penalty for wrong answers, and since then scores have risen nationwide.

“That particular scholarship, at its inception, was meant to be for our brightest students,” she said.

But data from both the Miami-Dade school districts and the state Board of Governors raise a familiar concern with Florida’s test-score-based scholarships: that every time eligibility requirements are raised, minority and low-income students bear the brunt of the change.

In Miami-Dade alone, 45 percent of the high school seniors, or about 770 kids, who are currently eligible for the “Academic” Bright Futures scholarship would no longer qualify for the full-tuition award if the change were applied to current students, according to the district. Sixty-three percent of black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students who currently qualify for that scholarship would lose eligibility. Those numbers are higher than the 40 percent of white students who would lose eligibility for the higher award.

Similar disparities were found with income levels, as a high number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch would lose eligibility and drop to the “Medallion” award level. But these trends also apply to the “Medallion” scholars, meaning that more than 1,200 students in Miami-Dade would theoretically not be eligible for any Bright Futures money.

The change wouldn’t apply to current 12th graders specifically because the changes wouldn’t kick in fully for a few years. But Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said it raises grave concerns about the future.

“As much as I support the principles of meritocracy, we need to examine impact if we care about equity,” he said.

Carvalho criticized state leaders for not doing these calculations statewide so that they could better understand how the law would affect the state’s students.

Stargel has pointed to the fact that Florida has made strides in closing the “achievement gap” between white and minority students in K-12 education, as measured by student performance on statewide assessments.

Carvalho isn’t convinced.

“It’s important to consider the gaps have not been eliminated,” he said. “The passage of legislation like this would disproportionately impact those students who currently live in the gap and that’s why I believe this will ... reduce equitable access by reducing opportunity.”

In Pinellas County, the district said that about 100 seniors would drop from the “Academic” to the “Medallion” level under the change, while about 70 current 12th graders would no longer qualify for either, based on SAT scores alone. In Hillsborough, about 380 students would drop from an “Academic” to the “Medallion.” A demographic breakdown of these students was not available.

This is not the first time critics have raised alarms about Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship. Since its creation in 1997, the program has been showered in praise and popularity across the state. Yet it’s also faced repeated questions about equality, especially as its eligibility requirements and funding have fluctuated before and after the Great Recession.

PAST COVERAGE: Questions about equity persist as a proposed boost in Bright Futures aims to help top grads

Those questions came to a head in 2014, when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights revived an investigation into complaints of unfairness. Later that year, however, the investigators found there was “insufficient evidence” that Bright Futures violated anti-discrimination laws, though their report acknowledged that when the state raised its test score requirements minority students had been disproportionately affected.

FairTest, a national organization that opposes the misuse of standardized tests, filed the original federal complaint back in 2002 against Bright Futures. Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s public education director who was involved with the original complaint, said test scores are not an effective way of measuring merit, because they grant unfair advantages to students who can afford pricey test preparation programs.

“It doesn’t matter the reason, when you raise scores that are linked to a test, that has disparate impact,” he said. “Test scores on average are strongly related to family income. As income goes up, test scores go up.”

Proponents have countered that the state has a separate award for needy students, the Florida Student Assistance Grant Program.

Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said he understands that the bills have created “the optic” that lawmakers are raising the bar but “in reality it’s just lining up with the test.”

“Sometimes ... our laws become out-of-date because when you’re referencing things like a test that changes,” he said. When it comes to the idea that more students should be granted eligibility rather than adjusting the score requirements, Diaz added, “that would be a different discussion.”