On NAEP, What’s Florida Doing That Other States Could Learn From?

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 10, 2018 4 min read
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Guest post by Alyson Klein

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a tough assessment of what the results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress say about K-12 education nationwide. But she had glowing words for one state: school choice-friendly Florida, which the secretary once hailed as a model for the nation.

DeVos called the Sunshine State a “bright spot” in Tuesday’s NAEP report. That report generally showed little progress in reading and math, and persistent achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their peers.

“The report card is in, and the results are clear: We can and we must do better for America’s students. Our nation’s reading and math scores continue to stagnate. More alarmingly, the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students is widening, despite billions in federal funding designated specifically to help close it,” DeVos said. Florida, though, can claim “significant improvement” in 4th and 8th grade math and in 8th grade reading, the secretary said. And she noted that both “low and higher performers” progressed, a shift from the national trend of yawning achievement gaps.

“Florida leaders, administrators, and, most importantly, teachers are to be commended for their continued efforts on behalf of students,” DeVos said in a statement. “Florida has been at the forefront of bold, comprehensive education reform for decades. From accountability, to literacy, to teacher certification and recognition, to providing parents more freedom to select the learning environment that best fits their students’ needs, Florida is rethinking education.”

Florida was the only state to show significant improvement in math at both grade levels and IN 8th grade reading (No state improved in 4th grade reading.) But other states and NAEP participants found reasons to tout their progress.

Puerto Rico saw gains in math at grade 4, while schools run by the Department of Defense also saw reading improvements at 8th grade. In reading, no states improved at 4th grade, but nine—California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Washington—and the Defense Department schools improved at the 8th grade level.

DeVos was probably jazzed about the chance to highlight Florida, which she called a national standout on a radio interview last year.

“I would point to Florida as being one that has had a variety of options for the longest period of time,” DeVos told Frank Beckmann, a conservative radio talk show host on WJR, based in Michigan back in February of 2017.

The state has a robust public school program, charters, and vouchers for students in special education. It has also created a tax credit scholarship, which DeVos and company have been championing behind-the-scenes in Washington.

DeVos has visited at least 10 Florida schools since becoming secretary, according to Edweek’s tracker. That’s more than any other state.

And a lot of DeVos’ team has Florida ties, including some folks who have been nominated for jobs by President Donald Trump but not yet confirmed by Congress. For instance, Frank Brogan, who has been tapped to be assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, served as a Florida district superintendent, state chief, and lieutenant governor.

Carlos Muñiz, who has been nominated for general counsel at the department, was a deputy attorney general and chief of staff to Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general. DeVos’ chief of staff, Josh Venable, was a top aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. DeVos herself served on the board of Bush’s education-redesign nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing between Florida and the Trump administration, though. The Sunshine State does not want to include a separate indicator for English-language proficiency in its plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. That’s an ESSA must, the department has said.

And during a press conference on the NAEP results Tuesday, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart credited her state’s accountability system for the gains. She noted that the state’s accountability system specifically gauges progress for the lowest 25 percent of students in each school, regardless of their student group. That may have given Florida an advantage during a time when the nation saw a widening gap between the highest- and lowest-performing 25 percent of students, she seemed to imply. But the department has told Florida that system conflicts with ESSA.

It’s not unusual for education secretaries to do a little fist-pumping when a state that they think is on the right track policywise outperforms the rest of the nation on NAEP. Arne Duncan, who headed the Education Department for most of President Barack Obama’s administration, celebrated when Hawaii, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia made big gains on NAEP after snagging the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top grants.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reads a Dr. Seuss story to kindergarten students at Royal Palm Elementary School in Miami on April 7. --C.M. Guerrero/El Nuevo Herald via AP

Assistant Editor Sarah Sparks contributed to this post.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.