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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman March 10, 2011

During teacher bill debate, talk turns to student performance

A version of a controversial education bill that Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed in 2010 is being fast-tracked through the Florida Legislature in 2011, now that Crist is gone.

You could call SB 736 "Son of SB 6."

The bill, which would link raises for teachers to student performance and limit the length of teacher contracts to one year, passed the Senate, 26-12, three days into the annual legislative session. A companion bill is moving through the Florida House.

During floor debate prior to its passage on March 10, 2011, state Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, tried to offer an amendment that would give school districts flexibility in judging teachers who teach students who receive free or reduced lunch. The bill already offered leeway for judging English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and special-needs teachers.

Altman said he wanted to acknowledge the "extra challenges" that educators who teach students on free or reduced lunch have.

The idea, however, got a rise out of the lone Democratic supporter of the bill, Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando.

"Are you saying just because a child is on free or reduced lunch, they need additional assistance?" asked Siplin, who said that he -- like Gov. Rick Scott -- "grew up in the projects" and turned out all right.

Altman recoiled to say that wasn't his intent, and claimed that free and reduced lunch students are performing as well as their counterparts.

"Our poverty schools are performing just as well," Altman said.

Altman's amendment died by a voice vote, but since this debate will continue in the House, we thought it important to address his broader point. The question in this case: Are students receiving free and reduced lunch performing as well as students who don't?

The answer, on average, is no.

PolitiFact Florida researched student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for 2010 through data supplied by the Florida Department of Education.

FCAT exams are issued to students starting in the third grade. Exams measure student performance in writing, reading, math and science.

At every grade level, in every subject area tested, students receiving free or reduced lunch scored worse on average than those not receiving free or reduced lunch, according to FDOE statistics.

Here's an example. Students take the FCAT math exam each year starting in the third grade until they finish their sophomore year of high school. Fifth graders in 2010 scored a 336 on average. Those who received free or reduced lunch scored 323 on average, while those who did not scored 356. The same trend played out for every grade level.

We're attaching the summary reports for each test from 2010 so you can see for yourself. In each case, we sorted mean test results among all students, those who receive free or reduced lunch and those that do not.

View the reading results here.

View the math results here.

View the writing results here.

View the science results here.

The raw scores are a better apples-to-apples comparison of student performance than, say, a school's FCAT letter grade, because the letter grade adjusts for relative improvement and groups all students together.

Altman said afterward that the point of his amendment was to be able to reward teachers who were helping poorer students compete and excel against their classmates. And he said that in his home of Brevard County there were examples of schools with high rates of students receiving free or reduced lunches who were performing as well as districts were students were better off. The current version of the bill, Altman said, draws no distinction for those high-performing teachers who are bucking the statewide trend.

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He said he hoped someone would carry forward a similar proposal when the debate moved to the House.

Altman wanted to insert language in an education bill that would have given school districts more leeway to offer raises to teachers who instruct children receiving free or reduced lunch, saying it was important to acknowledge the "extra challenges" those teachers face. When pressed by Siplin if he was suggesting poor students aren't as smart as others, he said no -- that students receiving free or reduced lunch are performing as well as everyone else.

To be clear, we're only talking about test scores here, not capabilities or smarts.

Though in a roundabout way it may actually help his point, Altman made a general claim about student performance that contradicts the facts.  We rate it False. 

Our Sources

SB 736, accessed March 10, 2011
SB 736 floor debate, March 10, 2011
2010 FCAT results, accessed March 10, 2011
2010 FCAT reading results by free and reduced lunch, accessed March 10, 2011

2010 FCAT math results by free and reduced lunch, accessed March 10, 2011

2010 FCAT writing results by free and reduced lunch, accessed March 10, 2011
2010 FCAT science results by free and reduced lunch, accessed March 10, 2011
St. Petersburg Times, "Senate gives final OK to teacher pay, tenure bill," March 10, 2011
Interview with Sen. Thad Altman, March 10, 2011

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During teacher bill debate, talk turns to student performance

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