Florida Style Education Reforms Touted

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Arizona should follow the lead of Florida and transform its schools even if the state can’t afford some of the elements of those reforms, Goldwater Institute analyst Matt Ladner told the Northern Gila County Republican Club last week.

The state should start by giving every school a grade from “A” to “F” based on student achievement and then move as quickly as possible to make teachers, students, parents and taxpayers focus on rewarding academic achievement.

“Florida focused on academic achievement,” said Ladner, “and that’s not something that happens without a fight. What this is showing us is that we cannot accept demographics as an excuse. Florida offers a message of hope for the rest of us.”

Ladner met with a group of community leaders and the Roundup editorial board over breakfast prior to his luncheon speech before the Republican Club, in a push to support a package of educational reforms also embraced by newly elected State Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal.

Ladner said that fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores rose dramatically in Florida between 2003 and 2009 — about four times as much as in Arizona.

Florida’s gains were especially pronounced among Hispanic and minority students, he said.

The researcher for the conservative think tank said Arizona should immediately embrace the low-cost elements of the Florida plan, which includes grading schools, mostly based on students’ improvements on academic tests, with special weight given to the scores of the weakest students.

However, Ladner said Arizona can’t afford to increase education funding, but could redirect some of its current money and make better use of its federal dollars. Florida approved a statewide initiative to reduce class sizes, while most districts in Arizona have been significantly increasing class sizes in the past two years.

Florida also imposed new rules that held back about 23 percent of the third-graders who hadn’t reached reading standards. That retention rate has since declined to about 12 percent, but remains far higher than in Arizona. Some researchers have said they suspect the huge increase in retentions in the third grade had a big impact on the rise in fourth-grade reading scores.

Moreover, Florida provided one-on-one tutoring for students having trouble learning to read and master math in elementary school. Arizona has been cutting funding for tutors, counselors and classroom aides while increasing class sizes and cutting teacher pay.

Florida significantly increased per–student spending in the course of the reforms, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Education.

For instance, a 2008 Census Bureau report ranked state, per-student spending per state. That report listed Arizona’s per-student spending at $7,608, ahead of only Idaho and Utah. Florida spent $9,035 per student, compared to the national average of $10,659.

In the past two years, Arizona has cut per-student spending and Florida voters rejected a proposal to roll back the increased spending required by the initiative to require smaller class sizes.

However, Ladner said research shows little direct connection between per-student spending levels and student achievement. Moreover, several studies had found little evidence directly connecting the rising scores in Florida with the timing of the shrinking class sizes, he said.

Ladner insisted that the key to the rise in test scores in Florida lay mostly in the focus on test scores and student achievement, together with the school grading system and efforts to provide more money to schools that succeeded in increasing test scores especially for minority and low-income students.

He presented a series of charts and graphs that displayed some of those results, with a special emphasis on fourth-grade reading scores and low-income and minority students. Many of those scores came from a set of federally approved tests included as part of the No Child Left Behind system administered to a random sample of students in every district in the nation, which provides a way to compare districts nationwide.

For instance, in 1998, Arizona students had an average score of 206 on the federal, fourth-grade reading test, far higher than the 171 average score for Florida fourth-graders with disabilities. By 2009, the Arizona scores remains almost unchanged at 210. By contrast, the scores for Florida fourth-graders with disabilities had risen to 204 — nearly matching the overall average for Arizona.

“Those kinds of gains are just unprecedented,” said Ladner.

Overall, Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores started out in 1998 the same as Arizona’s —about 206. In the course of the next decade, Florida’s average rose to 226 while Arizona’s inched upward to 210. As a result, the average Florida fourth-grader gained more than a whole year’s proficiency in reading compared to Arizona.

Last year, the Arizona legislature adopted many of the Florida reforms, including a plan to give every school in the state a grade from A to F. The Legislature also passed laws to hold back students in third grade who cannot pass standard reading tests.

Arizona also some years ago implemented other key elements of the Florida reforms, especially when it comes to providing public money for private schools. Arizona has taxpayer-funded vouchers to allow students to attend private charter schools, tuition tax credits for students in private schools, without having much impact on average scores in the state.

Ladner concluded “Arizona made a great start during the 2010 legislative session, when lawmakers passed measures creating an A-F grading system for schools, and curtailed social promotion of illiterate children in the third grade.”

However, he said implementing those reforms will prove difficult. As an example, he cited the history of the AIMS graduation test. Initial versions of the test would have prevented about a third of high school students from getting a diploma. But after repeated revisions of the test, few students who stay in school to the end of the 12th grade now fail to get a diploma because they can’t pass the AIMS test.

“Arizona’s past attempts at holding schools accountable for teaching state standards morphed into a cruel joke on children,” concluded Ladner.

He said in 2009, only 28 percent of Arizona’s fourth-graders and 27 percent of the eighth-graders scored proficient or better in reading — but 92 percent of the state’s schools got a “performing” or better rating under the current system, said Ladner.

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