Florida’s school choice advocates have had an unexpected change in their summer plans.
Just as they were gearing up to help expand the first statewide voucher program in the country, Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher made a dramatic announcement: The accountability program that offers vouchers to students in the state’s lowest-rated schools had proved so successful in raising test scores that the tuition aid won’t be offered to any new students this fall.
All of the schools that had earned failing grades last year under the accountability program—which gives schools letter grades based on their students’ scores on state tests—raised their marks by at least one grade, state officials announced late last month.
Under a 1999 law, Florida students in schools graded F for two out of four years are qualified to receive state- financed vouchers of up to $4,000 to help cover the cost of attending nonpublic schools, including religious ones, regardless of family income.
So by raising their grades, all of last year’s failing schools have staved off the immediate threat that their students would be offered vouchers in the coming school year.
Voucher opponents said they were relieved that the program had been effectively put on hold, despite a recent court decision that would have allowed it to continue while a legal challenge plays out. And some of those critics credited the long-term dedication of teachers and students—not the voucher program—for the improved test scores.
“This happened over a decade, not overnight,” said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the union formed by the recent merger of the state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We are very, very proud of the work that has been done.”
But supporters of the voucher program said the test results provided new evidence of the improvements schools can make in the face of competition.
“This is the strongest, clearest endorsement of the school choice idea that we could have had,” said Patrick J. Heffernan, the president of Floridians for School Choice, an advocacy group. “The central argument against school choice—that it will destroy the public schools—has been debunked once and for all.”
In March, a state judge ruled that the voucher program violates a provision in the state constitution requiring the state to provide a uniform and high-quality school system. The state has appealed that decision.
In the meantime, 53 students from two Pensacola elementary schools—the only schools in the state that have qualified for the program so far—are slated to continue receiving state-paid tuition as the legal battle proceeds. ( “Fla. Voucher Plan Can Continue During Appeal, Judge Says,” May 3, 2000.)
Grades Swing Upward
The success of the 76 public schools that had faced the threat of vouchers this year was part of a broader, statewide pattern of higher school grades, which are based on test scores in reading, writing, and mathematics on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The FCAT is administered to students in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10.
State education officials reported that 20 percent of Florida elementary schools moved up at least two grade levels, while 30 percent moved up one grade level. Only 7 percent of elementary schools saw their letter grades drop this year.
The gains were also noticeable in middle schools, where 24 percent of schools moved up at least one grade level, compared with 19 percent that saw their grades fall. In high schools, meanwhile, 10 percent moved up a grade level, while 8 percent dropped by at least one letter grade. In some cases, the improvements were startling: Two schools increased their grades from an F to an A in one year. JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said agency officials had verified the accuracy of the test scores from every possible angle.
“We see no reason to doubt the results at this point,” Ms. Carrin said. “We’ve done everything possible to examine the results.”
Still, while all of the schools previously graded F improved their test scores, four schools earned the failing grade for the first time this year. Two of the 78 schools initially graded F last year have since closed.
Commissioner Gallagher was quick to give credit to teachers and students for the improvements.
“This is a time of great celebration,” he said. “The student performance in these grades go beyond our highest expectations.”
State education officials are also assuring A-graded schools, as well as schools that improved by at least one grade level, that they will receive rewards of up to $100 per student, as guaranteed by Gov. Jeb Bush’s accountability plan. State officials estimate that the $60 million budgeted for the incentive program will not be enough to cover all of the rewards, but the governor and the education commissioner, both of whom are Republicans, are committed to finding the money, Ms. Carrin said.
Some testing experts, meanwhile, have cautioned state officials to take the long view when examining the test results. The real sign of increased student achievement is if the gains are sustained, said Helen F. Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University who has studied school accountability systems.
“The first year you have a high-stakes test, the actors in the system figure out what needs to be done to raise those test scores,” Ms. Ladd said. “The key question is whether learning has gone up, or whether it’s more a matter of learning how to take a particular test.”
Other experts have also pointed to what they say are predictable patterns of test-score gains, followed by a leveling off and decline. (“Testing’s Ups and Downs Predictable,” Jan. 26, 2000.)
Teaching to the Test?
In Florida’s 46,000-student Escambia County district, where students in the two Pensacola schools were offered vouchers last year, Superintendent Jim May unabashedly acknowledged that some of the increases in his district are linked to the fact that students are learning how to take the state test.
Though he said he was pleased that many of the schools in his district had posted substantial grade improvements—including one of the two schools in the state that went from an F to an A—Mr. May argued that the state grading system imposes “a demeaning kind of accountability.”
“But as long as Florida is going to base the success or failure of its schools on one hour-and-a-half-long test that is given to a different group of students every year, then we have to focus on the teaching of that exam,” Mr. May said.
Monty Neill, the executive director of the watchdog group FairTest, said high-stakes testing encourages teachers to use a “drill and kill” approach to teaching that ultimately stifles true learning.
“As far as I can tell ... there has been a massive test-coaching program in which kids are trained like seals to spit out a formulaic reply to get students past a certain test score,” contended Mr. Neill, whose Cambridge, Mass.-based organization is highly critical of standardized testing.
But in the 37,000-student Marion County district, administrators say the state grading system spurred real changes in the lowest-graded schools, including smaller class sizes, intensive professional development in reading, writing, and math for teachers, and increased involvement by parents.
At Fessenden Elementary, a rural school in the district where more than 80 percent of students receive free or reduced- price lunches, teachers and other staff members pulled out the stops to motivate students to lift the school from its hated F status, said Principal Loretta Pompey Jenkins.
“We had all kinds of posters and banners hung up all over the school,” Ms. Jenkins said. “We did a lot of testing, and we applauded successes. They knew we were behind them.”
Gov. Bush telephoned Ms. Jenkins last month to tell her that the efforts had paid off. The school raised its grade from an F to an A in one year.
“We did not teach to the test,” said Charles M. McAulay, the Marion County district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “We just taught like hell knowing that what we were teaching was going to be on the test.”
‘Great Problem To Have’
Meanwhile, national advocates of vouchers cheered the improved test scores as a sign of how school choice can spur academic progress, even as they lamented that some Florida children remain stuck in low-performing schools.
“It’s great news, but it also requires us to think about what we are doing for the children who are in the D, and even the C, schools,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that tracks and promotes school choice. “Florida’s program says to families that only children in the worst-performing schools can go someplace else.”
Likewise, Mr. Heffernan of Floridians for School Choice said he was disappointed that families of children in formerly F-graded schools who were “looking for something different for their child” will no longer have that option.
Still, Ms. Carrin of the state education department said, “this is a great problem to have.”
“The bottom line was to increase student performance,” she said, “not to have a voucher program.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Vouchers Stall as Fla. Schools Up Their Scores