Black, Hispanic, and low-income Florida fourth graders now outperform all California fourth graders in reading, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress results released last month by the U.S. Department of Education. Also known as the Nation’s Report Card, experts consider NAEP fourth-grade reading a leading predictor of success since students who have not mastered reading by fourth grade tend to fall further behind each year, increasing the likelihood they will ultimately drop out.
California fourth graders overall show an average NAEP 2009 reading scale score of 210 out of a possible 500, compared to 211 achieved by Black Florida fourth graders, 217 by low-income Florida fourth graders, and a staggering NAEP score of 236 by Hispanic Florida fourth graders. Such achievement is all the more remarkable given the gaps that existed between these sub-groups of Florida fourth graders and all California students a little more than a decade ago.
Back in 1998, all California fourth graders achieved an average NAEP reading scale score of 202, outscoring low-income, Black, and Hispanic Florida fourth graders by 12, 16, and 21 scale points, respectively. Today those disadvantaged students have transformed a performance deficit into enviable reading advantage over California.
Conventional wisdom holds that minority and low-income students cannot achieve at the same level non-minority or affluent students do. It also holds that students in states that spend more do better. Florida is turning such thinking on its head.
Today, both California and Florida spend about $9,400 per pupil, according to the latest data from U.S. Department of Education. Likewise, both states have accountability measures including annual school report cards, bans on social promotion, and some of the country’s highest academic standards.
Yet more than a decade ago Florida embraced parental choice in education as part of its comprehensive reform strategy. Since 1999 students assigned to failing public schools may transfer to better public schools. Those students may also transfer to private schools using Step Up for Students Tax-Credit Scholarships. Parental choice programs such as these help give Florida’s other accountability measures real teeth and enjoy broad, bi-partisan support.
In 1998 almost half of Florida’s fourth graders were functionally illiterate. Today, fourth grade NAEP reading scores among major student sub-group are above the national average. Florida is also eliminating the achievement gap. In fact, according to the Foundation for Florida’s Future, “Every leading indicator – test scores, graduation rates, national rankings, participation and achievement in Advanced Placement – continues to rise.”
In contrast, it can take decades for many of California’s worst performing schools to turn around. Current practice sentences students to these schools unless their families can afford to move or pay tuition for independent schools out of pocket, on top of state and local taxes. The results speak for themselves.
California “has still failed to close an achievement gap that threatens the future of our diverse state,” says State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. “Groups of California children who have traditionally struggled – groups that in many instances make up the fastest growing portion of our society – continue to trail behind their peers, and the gap is not closing. Recognizing this is important. Addressing it is imperative.”
California and Florida had comparable fourth grade NAEP reading gaps in 1998. As of 2009, California’s socioeconomic gap remains unchanged at 30 points while Florida’s shrank by more than one-third to 19 points. Florida also closed its Black/White achievement gap by nine points, compared to California’s four.
Florida’s progress toward eliminating the White/Hispanic fourth grade NAEP reading gap is even more dramatic. California’s gap shrunk by just five points in more than a decade, and now stands at 31 points. Meanwhile, Florida nearly halved its gap so just 10 points separate the two student groups.
If California policy makers want to improve student achievement, they should read the writing on the wall and emulate Florida’s success.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Education Studies Associate Director at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California. She and Dr. Matthew Ladner, Vice President for Research at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, are co-authors of PRI’s Demography Is Not Destiny: Reform Lessons from Florida on Overcoming Achievement Gaps.