In 2011, Florida state legislators approved a bill to link teacher pay to student performance.
Despite resistance from some educators, including a lawsuit filed by the teachers’ union, state Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, stood firm behind Senate Bill 736. Proctor is the chair of a House education committee and chancellor at Flagler College.
"Right now, 50 percent of Florida students leaving high school cannot read at grade level, and grade level isn’t that difficult," Proctor said in comments to the St. Augustine Record. "We’ll see which teachers affect learning in their students."
We were surprised by that statistic: Do half of Florida’s high school graduates head off to college or work without reading at grade level?
Florida’s seniors aren’t tested for reading skills as they don their caps and gowns. But we found two compelling pieces of evidence that indicate Proctor is probably right.
FCAT and college entrance exams
Florida high school students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, in the 10th grade.
Proctor’s office sent us to the most-recent 10th grade FCAT results. A "3 or higher" is considered reading at grade level. During the 2010-11 school year, only 39 percent of nearly 186,000 10th graders scored that well.
But 60 percent passed the test, which means it’s possible to pass the test and read below grade level. Students are required to pass the 10th grade FCAT to graduate.
Students who fail have two opportunities per year to retake the test which would ultimately boost that 39 percent figure who scored at grade level. The retest data mixes students from different years, though, so we can’t give a definitive number for how many more students passed the FCAT in a specific graduating class.
"Yes, we graduate students that cannot read on 10th grade reading level," said Lindy Smith, an aide to Proctor, in an email. "Of those students passing the 10th grade Reading FCAT, I do not know how many actually graduated - but as you know students must pass 10th grade Reading FCAT in order to graduate. We expect some growth in reading in grades 11 and 12 but do not test those results on FCAT."
The other piece of evidence came from the Florida Department of Education. Staff there pointed us to a December 2011 report on school assessment standards.
The report stated that to be "college ready" students must graduate from high school, take certain courses and demonstrate basic literary skills. During the 2009-10 school year, 55 percent of the graduating seniors scored college ready for reading based on the ACT, SAT or CPT (The CPT, or College Placement Test, is primary used for the state’s public community colleges.) That number, too, supports Proctor’s claim.
Experts on testing and education
If the number of students reading at grade level is so abysmally low, why the repeated push for testing?
We posed that question to Matthew Ladner, a senior advisor of policy and research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education (chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush). Ladner
coauthored Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform for the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Without the testing, Florida wouldn’t have a measurement of its students’ performance, he said. And although no one is happy about that 39 percent figure of students reading at grade level in the 10th grade, Florida has made gains. Ladner pointed to the National Assessment of Education Progress which tests samples of students. Florida’s fourth grade reading results were below the national average in 1998, but climbed enough by 2011 to be above the national average.
"What you find is while there is still plenty of room for improvement in Florida, there has been a large amount of progress in the right direction," he said.
We also spoke with Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a national organization which advocates for better forms of assessment. Schaeffer said that Proctor’s claim sounded accurate, but he said that what constitutes "grade level" isn’t objective criteria.
"Grade level is a political construct," he said. "If you gave the FCAT to many competent adults they would fail."
Schaeffer also said that the SAT and other college entrance exams are given to students who are already college bound, so that measure doesn’t provide a full picture -- for example students who have dropped out.
The State Board of Education approves the achievement level descriptions for FCAT 2.0.
Proctor said "Right now, 50 percent of Florida students leaving high school cannot read at grade level." The results for 10th grade reading FCAT show only 39 percent at grade level. Some additional students met that grade level mark through retests or by a sufficient score on the SAT or ACT, which would boost that 39 percent figure. Another way to measure Proctor’s claim is by looking at the percentage who were deemed college ready for reading based on college entrance exams, and that figure was 55 percent for 2009-10. By both measurements, the figure is close to 50 percent. We rate this claim Mostly True.