1. Opinion

Column: Florida's schools moving in the right direction (w/video)

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Published Apr. 9, 2014

We are thrilled to join Florida's educators in celebrating the impressive progress made by our students, teachers and schools in the past 15 years.

In contrast, the Tampa Bay Times' editorial of April 5 reads like a too-harsh parent's chiding of a child whose improving report card will never be good enough. Even if it's better than the last one, even if it's trending in the right direction, the message is, "Why isn't that B an A?"

It's little wonder so many Floridians are unaware of Florida's educational gains: A recent survey found only 8 percent of parents statewide and 4 percent in Tampa Bay actually know that Florida schools are above average nationally.

The "Learn More. Go Further" initiative was launched to inform Floridians about the progress that's been made in 15 years of education reform — emphasizing higher standards, accountability and assessment. We know our work isn't done. As the name suggests, we need to build on what's working to "go further."

Florida's progress has been documented in multiple, credible national evaluations, such as Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance, which ranked Florida second in the nation, closely trailing Maryland, in overall academic gains made between 1992 and 2011. The gains were calculated based on the Nation's Report Card, a national yardstick, measuring 41 states' annual rate of growth based on student achievement in math, reading and science.

But the Times' editorial ignores the positive, as in this excerpt: "There have been some successes, but the campaign cherry-picks statistics to make Florida's schools look better than they are."

It's not cherry-picking when you rely on credible, apples-to-apples comparisons among states, such as the most recent "Mega State Report," conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Florida's results outshined the other "mega" states with the largest public school student populations: California, Illinois, New York and Texas. Combined, these states serve more than half of the nation's English-language learning students and more than one-third of low-income students.

Florida has a richly diverse student population. And we have seen tremendous gains among the minority and low-income students who, historically, have the greatest ground to cover to close the achievement gap.

The Times complains that the achievement gap for Florida's low-income fourth-graders in reading has not closed much in 15 years. But, in fact, the average reading score for Florida's low-income fourth-graders has increased almost three grade levels in the last 15 years.

Continuing to see the glass as half empty, the Times notes that a third of Florida's African-American eighth-graders scored below basic on a comparative reading test, compared to only 16 percent of white students. But they fail to mention that while in 1998 more than half of Florida's African-American eighth-graders scored below basic levels on the NAEP reading test, that number is now down to 34 percent in 2013. Still too high, but we're moving in the right direction.

While the Times complains that only 58.9 percent of African-American males graduated last year, compared to 80.5 percent of all white students, we point to the trend line. Florida's graduation rate among African-American males has increased by 12.6 percentage points since the 2008-09 school year.

Overall, Florida's graduation rate reached an all-time high of 75.6 percent in 2012-2013. Is our work done? Hardly. Do we have much to be proud of? Absolutely.

The Times discounts the fact that a record number of Florida students are taking AP classes, including minority students, by pointing to the number of students who don't pass AP exams. That ignores the real fact that those students are better prepared for college success just by taking AP classes, whether they earn college credit by passing the exams or not.

There is more good news to share, and I'd hoped to share it personally with the editorial board but was declined a meeting.

The Times is right on one important point: We're not there yet. There is more work to do. But failing to mark progress discredits the hard work of our students and teachers.

Surely we all can agree that Florida is moving in the right direction. Expecting much of our children, assessing their achievement and celebrating their progress is a powerful recipe for success.

Patricia Levesque is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.