Romano: If Florida's education reforms are so good, why are our SAT scores so bad?

After an overhaul to the education system, Florida testing still lags behind. [
Credit: Pasco County School District]
After an overhaul to the education system, Florida testing still lags behind. [ Credit: Pasco County School District]
Published Sept. 15, 2015

It was called reform but, let's be honest, it resembled a threat.

Back in his first term as governor, Jeb Bush made an overhaul of Florida's education system a priority. He designed a school grading system that wielded new consequences, theorizing that increased accountability would lead to greater results.

After all, back in 2000, there was certainly room for improvement. Among the 10 most populous states that typically used the SAT as a benchmark for college readiness, Florida's average SAT score ranked sixth.

So Bush threatened to divert public school money into voucher programs — and later charter schools — as an incentive to whip schools and teachers into shape.

His ideas were later expanded and extrapolated by the state Legislature until standardized tests, accountability and decreasing school funds were all anyone could talk about.

Now, in 2015, we have a generation's worth of classes to measure the results. And among the 10 most populous states principally using the SAT, Florida's average score ranks ninth.

In other words, thank God for Texas.

Now, to be sure, there are extenuating circumstances for Florida's dwindling ranking. For instance, the percentage and total number of students taking the SAT in Florida have grown faster than most states, and that typically leads to lower scores.

But that caveat still doesn't fully explain Florida's meager results in comparable situations. If you go by percentages, New Jersey, Maryland and Georgia all have a higher percentage of students taking the SAT, and they score noticeably higher than Florida.

If you go by raw numbers, California and New York have far more students taking the SAT, and they also get significantly better results.

Which begs the question:

Have reforms actually worked in Florida?

There will be those who point to school grades or fourth-grade reading results or some other metric to say how far Florida has come, but I have a hard time looking past the SAT results released last week.

For a state that is obsessed with high-stakes, standardized tests, the SAT is pretty much the Holy Grail of assessments. Even Bush acknowledged its value in education in 2000.

As part of his original package of reforms, Bush set aside money for PSAT tests (previews of the SAT) to prep 10th graders, and he proposed a partnership with the College Board (the makers of the SAT) to help struggling students prepare.

He also, in his words, used the threat of vouchers to "refocus school districts.''

Yet what was true in 2000 remains true today:

Economic disparity is still the most predictive element of the test.

Blaming school boards, principals and teachers — which was the unspoken inference of Bush's reforms — hasn't helped Florida on the nation's most recognizable test. Neither did privatizing a chunk of the state's education system with charter schools. Neither did adding scads of other high-stakes tests, or micromanaging curriculum.

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Somewhere along the line, it seemed more important in Tallahassee to perpetuate an ideology rather than consider whether reforms were actually working.

Because, 15 years later, Florida's average SAT score (1,434) is still noticeably below the national average (1,490) and trails 45 other states.

Again, it's important to acknowledge there are dozens of states where only the best students ever take the SAT, leading to disproportionately high scores.

But even in a comparable weight class — measured against states where 60-80 percent of the students take the test — Florida lags behind most.

This doesn't mean all of the Bush-style reforms are ill-advised, but it strongly suggests Florida consider alternative solutions rather than marching lock-step toward privatization.

For, if preparing students for college is one of a school system's greatest challenges, then Florida is failing far too often.