Lessons from Florida for California’s New Legislators

California’s new state education boss, Tom Torlakson, has his work cut out for him. He might start by explaining to parents why Florida, a demographically similar state, continues to outpace California in student achievement. On that score the Golden State still sputters around the bottom of national rankings.

California apologists of the status quo are fond of blaming overall low achievement on low-income and minority students. Yet, in Florida, those very student groups continue to propel meteoric achievement gains. Consider the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

In 1998, four NAEP scale-score points separated California and Florida, 202 and 206, respectively. These scores ranked near the bottom, with Florida ranked 34th out of 40 states participating in the NAEP reading assessment, and California ranked 37th. After a decade of comprehensive reform, however, Florida fourth graders rank among the country’s highest performers. Meanwhile, the reading performance of California fourth graders remains stuck near the bottom. If students can’t read, they can’t learn, and the results bear that out.

In 2009, the average Florida fourth grader scored 16 points higher than the average California fourth grader on the NAEP reading assessment, more than one full grade level ahead. Florida fourth graders also now tie with peers in five other states for the fourth-highest NAEP reading score.

From 1998 to 2009, Florida fourth graders achieved gains equivalent to two full grade levels in reading ability, 20 NAEP scale-score points. In contrast, California fourth graders gained eight points, not quite one full grade level. Despite this gain, California tied with one other state for the country’s fourth-worst fourth-grade NAEP reading score.

On the NAEP reading assessment Florida’s low-income, Hispanic, and black fourth graders now outperform all California fourth graders, as well as all fourth graders in a growing list of states. With a 13-point advantage, Florida’s Hispanic fourth graders are the equivalent of nearly one and a half grade levels ahead of all California fourth graders in reading, and they outperform all fourth graders in 26 other states—up from 15 states on the 2007 NAEP reading assessment.

Florida also leads the nation in the rate of Hispanic students passing Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and the numbers of Florida’s Hispanic and black students passing AP exams have both more than tripled since 1999. These achievements flow from a decade of common-sense reform combining accountability, transparency, and parental choice with other far-reaching K-12 reforms such as alternative teacher certification and financial incentives for school success.

Florida pursued those reforms from the top down through state testing and from the bottom up through parental choice—and they did so with strong bipartisan support. Overall, Florida’s approach emphasized standards for schools, transparency for parents, and immediate options for students most at risk. That includes children trapped in chronically failing schools, from low-income families, from the foster-care system, and children with disabilities.

On the other coast, California has refused to adopt large scale reforms that would allow students to attend schools their parents—not bureaucrats or special interest groups—think are best. The time has come for change. California’s new crop of legislators should learn from Florida’s success and enact reforms based on equal access for all students to great teachers and high-performing schools.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is PRI Education Studies Associate Director and Senior Policy Fellow. Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. They are co-authors of the forthcoming policy brief “Demography is Still Not Destiny.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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