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Florida's school system tumbles out of the top 10

Published Jan. 12, 2012

Florida's education system fell in rank from No. 5 to No. 11 this year due to budget cuts and stalling national test scores, according to a closely watched annual report released today.

The report card from the Education Week newspaper, which was provided in advance to the Tampa Bay Times and other news outlets, is another recent sign that Florida's education star may be dimming.

On the academic achievement portion of the report, Florida dropped from No. 6 to No. 12.

On the finance portion, it stumbled from No. 31 to No. 39.

The latter rankings are based on 2009 figures, so they're likely to get worse in future reports. The Legislature cut another $1.3 billion from schools last year.

"It's not all about money, but at some point, it does take money to run a school system and a high quality one," said Colleen Wood, founder of 50th No More, a state group dedicated to increased education spending.

"Obviously it's bad for our children, it's bad for our state," Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich said of the latest numbers. "You have to put your money where your mouth is."

Wood, Rich and other critics of Florida's accountability system, shaped in large part by former Gov. Jeb Bush, said the report should also prompt Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers to reconsider the state's vision of education reform. But supporters argued the opposite, saying the state needed to stay on the same path with renewed vigor.

"For the last decade, Sunshine State students have illustrated that progress is achievable under a system of high expectations, accountability for schools and an array of education choices for families," Patricia Levesque, who directs two Bush education foundations, said in a written statement. The report shows "Florida's work is not done."

Education Week ranks states in six broad areas, looking at a comprehensive list of statistics and policies. It awards a grade and ranking for each.

Florida's overall grade fell from B- to C+. The national average was C. Pennsylvania was the only other state to fall out of the Top 10, falling four spots to No. 13.

Top state officials keep close tabs on the rankings. And happily tout them when the results are upbeat.

Last year, Scott quickly congratulated teachers, students and parents. This year, his office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday and said it would likely release a statement today.

Scott is urging lawmakers to restore $1 billion in education funding this year after he backed last year's cuts.

In the K-12 achievement category, Florida earned a C-, down from a C+ last year.

Ed Week looks at three academic indicators: graduation rates; college-caliber Advanced Placement exams; and math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a well respected test better known by its acronym, NAEP. The ranking formula considers performance and progress for all of them.

In many respects, Florida's overall performance isn't stellar — and hasn't been for a long time. But progress over the past decade allowed it to storm the rankings, rising from No. 34 in 2007 to No. 8 in 2010 and No. 5 last year.

The latest report, though, follows sobering news from November. Florida's NAEP scores, for years the most dramatically rising in the country, had not moved much for the second testing cycle in a row. No surprise, then, that Florida fell in all 14 NAEP-related categories tracked by Ed Week.

Kathleen Shanahan, who chairs the state Board of Education, questioned the NAEP results and by extension the rankings. She noted that some states exclude much higher percentages of potentially struggling students — students with disabilities and English language learners — from taking the NAEP than Florida does.

On the fourth-grade reading test, for example, Maryland's inclusion rate for disabled students was 31 percent. Florida's was 89 percent.

"I am questioning whether NAEP is apples to apples," Shanahan said.

Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, said the board is pushing states to beef up inclusion rates. But she also said the number of excluded students is small — and does not make a big difference in a state's overall score.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8873.

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