A first-time report released Thursday on the nation's five most heavily populated states, or "megastates," shows that Florida students made some of the most significant gains over 19 years on closely watched federal tests.
Of these large, diverse states, only Florida saw its fourth-graders come from behind to surpass the national average in reading. A 16-point gain on the 500-point National Assessment of Educational Progress — often nicknamed "The Nation's Report Card" — brought Florida's fourth-graders from well below the national average to just above.
"I am fairly confident in saying there is something real going on there," said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.
Florida's eighth-graders, alone among their megastates peers, showed a statistically significant improvement on the reading test. Climbing eight points, they now meet the national average.
In math, Florida was the only one of the five states to see its fourth-graders claim larger gains since 1992 than the rest of the nation. Florida eighth-graders also improved their math scores, although they still fell short of the national average.
The report, produced by the U.S. Department of Education, compared Florida with California, Illinois, New York and Texas. Combined, the five megastates enroll nearly 40 percent of the nation's public school students and are home to almost one-third of the nation's public schools.
Beyond their size, the five states are the prime caterers to student groups educators are struggling to reach. The megastates serve more than half of the country's English language learners, and about half of each state's students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of poverty.
For these reasons and many more, megastates often do not beat the country on the Nation's Report Card. In addition to math, Florida's eighth-grade students fell short on the science exam.
That makes Florida's 16-point jump in fourth-grade reading even more notable.
Buckley said he was "skeptical" of anyone who ventured to link these scores to policy decisions. But that hasn't stopped Florida's policymakers from doing so.
In a statement, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett pointed to the state's third-grade reading retention policies and A-F school grades as causes of the growth.
"While there may not be a strict causal relationship between these actions and Florida's steady improvement, we cannot ignore that prospect," Bennett said.
Thursday's megastates report uses data running from 1992 to 2011. The 2011 results were first released for all states in November 2011, revealing that Florida had "plateaued," according to a statement from former Gov. Jeb Bush. For the second testing cycle in a row, Florida's math and reading scores were mostly flat after a decadelong climb.
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Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).