Be No. 1 in nation for student performance in reading and math

"Be No. 1 in the nation for student performance by expecting all of our students to perform at or above grade level in math and reading."


Education bills were hot topics during the 2017 Florida legislative session. (Miami Herald)
Education bills were hot topics during the 2017 Florida legislative session. (Miami Herald)

Florida far from Gov. Rick's promise to lead nation in reading, math

Gov. Rick Scott vowed in his second term to reach for the stars when it comes to student tests.

Scott promised in 2014 that Florida would be "No. 1 in the nation for student performance in reading and math."

To compare test scores among the states, researchers and politicians typically point to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests progress in a variety of subjects including English and math at certain grade levels every other year.

Florida is nowhere near the top in reading or math for fourth or eighth graders.

Math: In 2015, the national average for fourth-graders in math was 240. Florida ranked higher at 243, but there were 13 states with higher scores ranging from 244 to 251.

Florida's eighth graders ranked lower than the majority of states and below the national average.

Reading: In 2015, the national average for fourth graders in reading was 221. Florida ranked higher at 227 but was below eight other states that scored between 228 and 235. Florida's eighth graders scored just a hair below the national average but behind several other states.

States at the top include New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and Minnesota.

Compared to 2013, Florida didn't move the needle much overall.

We asked a Scott spokeswoman what steps Scott had taken toward this promise. Kerri Wyland pointed to an increase in K-12 funding in recent years including $20.2 billion in 2016-17 and increase from $19.7 billion the previous year. Scott has proposed nearly $21 billion for next year.

But Scott oversaw cuts in education early in his tenure and the per-pupil spending is only slightly above his predecessor.

(A Scott spokeswoman also pointed to high test scores among Florida's Hispanic students but Scott's promise related to all students — he didn't single out one group.)

Sterling Lloyd, assistant director for Education Week Research Center, said it would be a "substantial challenge" for Florida to be the top state in reading or math by 2019.

"It's fairly difficult to move the needle with respect to NAEP scores," he said.

Moving up in NAEP occurs slowly. For example, Florida gained about nine points between 2003 and 2015 on fourth grade NAEP math results.

The states with the largest gains in fourth grade math between 2013 and 2015 gained only three points -- and those were states that started out with low scores, such as Louisiana and Mississippi.

"We often see this pattern where it's easier to make gains if you start out with a lot of room for improvement," he said. "States, like Florida, that aren't starting at the bottom can find it more difficult to make improvements since they have already gathered the low-hanging fruit."   

University of Iowa education professor David Bills said spending more money can lead to higher test scores, but it depends on how that money is spent.

"To the extent that it's spent on instruction, tutoring, hiring good teachers, and so on, you might expect educational benefits," he said. "If it's spend on security, grounds maintenance, athletics, and the like, maybe less so."

if Florida wants to raise the mean test score, the state should spend a ton of money on lower-achieving students to try to bring their scores up to the average, Bills said.

Florida still has time to move up in the NAEP ranks before Scott leaves office in January 2019 so we will check on Florida's progress when the 2017 scores are published, expected early next year. But Florida is nowhere near the top spot and it seems unlikely it will climb to that ranking during the next few years.

We rate this promise Stalled.


National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation's Report Card, 2015

National Center for Education Statistics, Florida state profile, 2013 and 2015

Florida Department of Education, Press release, Oct. 28, 2015

PolitiFact Florida, "Rick Scott says Florida fourth graders are world's second-best readers," Jan. 21, 2013

Interview, Kerri Wyland, Gov. Rick Scott spokeswoman, March 31, 2017

Interview, David Bills, professor at the University of Iowa College of Education, March 31, 2017

Interview, Sherman Dorn, Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College division director and professor, March 31, 2017

Interview, Sterling Lloyd, Education Week Research Center assistant director, March 31, 2017