Florida schools’ report card? Needs improvement | Editorial
Grading against a pandemic curve doesn’t help students to learn.
The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the nation’s report card — came out this week. Here is how Florida fourth and eighth graders compared with students across the United States in reading and math.
The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the nation’s report card — came out this week. Here is how Florida fourth and eighth graders compared with students across the United States in reading and math. [ Provided ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 26, 2022

The Nation’s Report Card is in, and the grades in America and Florida are poor. Blame whoever or whatever you want — the pandemic, distance learning, the way students are taught. But please don’t try to parse it and pretend to find only good news. There just isn’t much.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, came out this week, the first since 2019 — in other words, before the pandemic began. The exams, given for 30 years, quiz a broad sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders across the nation in math and reading. They are among the few tests that directly compare students in different states.

It is important to look at the overall results, because it’s easy to cherry-pick them to come to unwarranted and Panglossian conclusions. For example, relative to the rest of the nation, Florida’s fourth-graders did well in math and reading. Isn’t that a victory for the option of in-person instruction, as Gov. Ron DeSantis — and this editorial board — pushed for in the fall of 2020?

Florida’s fourth-grade readers scored exactly the same as three years ago, a 225, while American students overall declined by 3 points, from 219 to 216. Still, that’s a win, isn’t it, not losing ground during a pandemic? Well, before 2019, Florida’s fourth-grade readers hadn’t done that poorly since 2011. Reverting to where things were a decade ago is not progress.

Offering in-person instruction was necessary but not sufficient, and it was only one of many other factors at play. For example, Florida’s fourth-graders were second in the nation in reading proficiency, with 39% being proficient. Pretty good. But Massachusetts was No. 1, with 43% proficiency, and it didn’t order schools to fully re-open for in-person instruction until spring 2021, long after Florida. The reality is more nuanced than an open or shut case on schools.

And fourth-grade reading is Florida’s bright spot, the place where scores were merely flat instead of declining. In math, Florida’s fourth-grade performance actually dropped by 5 points, from 246 in 2019 to 241 in 2022. Across the nation, scores fell from 240 to 235. Let’s spell it out: Florida was ahead by 6 points in 2019 and maintained that same gap this year even as overall math performance fell in Florida and the nation. Getting worse at the same rate as other students nationally is not a victory. Still, 41% of Florida’s fourth-graders were proficient in math, sixth-best in the nation. That ends the “good” news.

In eighth-grade math proficiency, Florida fell to mediocre or worse, coming in at #34, tied with California and others. Only 23% of Florida’s eighth-graders were math-proficient, worse than the national average, and far below Massachusetts which was tops again. Florida’s eighth-grade readers weren’t much better. The state tied with six states at #25, with 29% of its students reading proficiently, again below the national average and worse than California and New York, among others.

So if Florida is going to take credit for doing relatively well — grading against a pandemic curve in fourth-grade scores — it has some explaining to do with what happened to its eighth-graders.

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The overall lesson? Looking at all of the numbers across the board, the pandemic was a catastrophe for kids’ education in Florida and the United States. Slicing the numbers to look for a happy result completely misses the point. Students suffered, and scoring political points by claiming that one policy or another solved the problem actually papers over this harsh reality: Kids currently in the public school system are in danger of falling back a generation in their learning. That’s the fact that policy makers need to address. Pretending otherwise serves no one. No student left behind? In reality, most of our students were left behind.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.