1. Opinion

Florida’s students should stack up | Editorial

Standardized test scores paint a bleak picture of stagnation, not progress.
Published Dec. 6, 2019

In this increasingly global job market, Florida’s students will compete against ones from Mumbai as well as Massachusetts, Taipei as well as Texas. Yet, despite all the standardized tests that Florida’s school children endure, educators don’t know how their performance stacks up against their peers around the world. That’s a shame, because it’s a safe bet that Florida is not measuring up and needs to up its game in the classroom and not pretend that all is well.

Here’s why. Results of an international test of 15-year-olds that compare American teens’ reading, math and science ability with hundreds of thousands of students from 79 countries just came out Tuesday, and the results are sobering: Despite a generation of education reform -- from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act -- performance has been stagnant since 2000, the first year the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was given. Worse, nearly one in five American 15-year-olds had apparently not even mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old. Overall, American students were behind the pack in math but slightly above peer nations in reading. In other words, mediocre.

Where does Florida come in? Six years ago, Florida was one of three states that paid extra money to have a larger sample tested for PISA, which is administered every three years. That gave Florida state-specific results to judge against the world. At that time, Florida -- then as now the epicenter for high-stakes testing -- performed below the U.S. average in every subject.

Florida has not had any statewide breakdowns since then, so there is no direct comparison with results across the world. But another measure -- the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced “nape”) and also known as the nation’s report card -- gives solid clues. Given to a representative sample of nearly 294,000 fourth- and eighth-grade students across the nation, NAEP allows states to compare themselves to each other -- and to the country as a whole. If a state has better NAEP scores than the national average, it’s safe to say its students are also more competitive internationally.

Florida’s fourth-graders outperform the nation in math and reading, but eighth-graders do not. That’s what passes for good news. The bad news is that Florida’s scores have been flat for a decade and both fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores declined from the previous tests two years ago. Worse, 30 percent of Florida’s fourth-graders tested below basic in their ability to read, as did 28 percent of the eighth-graders. That means more than one in four students have trouble reading and are nowhere near ready to take on the world. Yet, that’s literally the challenge they will face. Rather than Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, Florida is in danger of becoming the land of woe-is-us.

Comparing Florida’s results to the nation’s -- and the nation’s to the world’s -- paints a distressing picture of stagnation. The world is moving rapidly ahead and becoming ever more competitive. Despite happy talk to the contrary, there is little reason to believe that Florida is keeping up, let alone leading the way. Wishes aren’t realities, and with the legislative session just around the corner, Tallahassee needs to act with urgency to give its students the education they deserve, to provide teachers with abundant resources and allow them the freedom to do their jobs. The rest will take care of itself.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news


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