education reform

Fla. drops from 5th to 11th in national ed ranking

By CHRISTINE ARMARIO – AP Education Writer

MIAMI — After years of soaring toward the top, Florida fell from fifth to 11th in a nationwide education ranking, a drop driven largely by weaker student performance and spending cuts.

Education Week‘s annual “Quality Counts” report gave the state a C-plus overall, down from a B-minus the year before. The study grades states based on six indicators, including K-12 achievement, standards, assessment and accountability, and school finance. The nationwide average was a C.

The biggest drops in Florida were seen in elementary and secondary education performance, where the state’s score declined in all three areas measured – achievement levels, gains and the poverty gap. Thirty-seven percent of fourth graders scored as proficient in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2011, three points lower than the previous year, bringing the state’s ranking from 26 down to 33. Meanwhile, the gap between low-income and more affluent students grew.

Florida’s overall academic achievement score fell by more than 5 points, a bigger decline than in other states.

State education spending also got poor marks, going from an A last year to a D-plus in the 2012 report. Nearly 98 percent of students in Florida attend school in districts where per pupil spending is less than the nationwide average. Those numbers are based on 2009 figures, and education spending has only declined in the years since.

“You see a spending picture that is really of concern to those interested in public education in Florida,” said Sterling Lloyd, project manager for “Quality Counts.”

Lawmakers in Florida cut education spending last year by $1.35 billion, or nearly 8 percent. This year Gov. Rick Scott‘s recommended budget includes a $1 billion increase.

“Florida’s education system ranks among the best in the nation, but we still face some challenges,” Scott said in a statement. “I’m confident we will continue to improve.”

Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said results from any additional spending won’t show up immediately but will be a factor in future success.

“We know that our educational system has been strained by the economic downturn,” Robinson said.

Florida did receive praise for its standards, assessment and accountability practices, which include rating school performance, sanctioning those schools with the lowest achievement levels and providing them assistance. The state was given an A in this category and ranked fifth nationwide.

The discordant results – strong accountability but weak student performance – show how complicated it is to improve achievement, Lloyd said.

“What it really tells us is that student achievement is not driven by a particular set of policy but affected by a range of factors,” he said. “It helps to have strong accountability policies, but you have to have a system that is functioning well as a whole.”

Nationwide, Maryland was ranked first for the fourth year in a row, followed by Massachusetts, New York and Virginia.

Florida’s performance in the nationwide rankings had improved dramatically in recent years and the drop is likely to bring new questions into the ongoing debate about how to boost student performance. Lawmakers approved sweeping changes last year, getting rid of tenure for new teachers and creating a new teacher evaluation system that heavily depends on student test scores.

“Last year Florida was recognized for its historic climb from 31st to fifth place in just four years,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, which is chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “But this year’s lower ranking is a reminder that success is never final, and reform is never finished.”

The “Quality Counts” report also looked at how the nation’s education performance compares internationally, a subject of increasing concern in Washington as studies show U.S. student achievement flagging while other countries advance more rapidly.

“Despite some bright spots over the years, Americans remain rightly concerned that the nation’s pace of improvement is simply too slow, at a time when our global peers and competitors may be rocketing ahead,” said Christopher B. Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.
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