Researchers, therefore, focus heavily on fourth grade reading scores as a bellweather for the effectiveness of schools. In 1998, a stunning 47 percent of Florida fourth graders were on this dismal track, scoring “below basic” on the NAEP reading test. In 2007, 70 percent of Florida fourth graders scored basic or above on reading.
The percentage of Florida children failing to master basic literacy dropped by 36 percent in less than 10 years--a remarkable achievement. Meanwhile, the percentage of fourth graders scoring “proficient” increased by 54 percent, and the percent scoring “advanced” (the highest level of achievement) doubled, from four to eight percent.
Best of all, improvements among Hispanic and African American students helped to drive the overall results. Scores of Florida’s Hispanic students have soared in recent years. Florida’s Hispanic students now have the second highest reading scores in the nation, and African Americans score fourth highest.
The average Florida Hispanic student NAEP reading score (conducted in English mind you) is now higher than the overall scores of all students in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Hold on to your hats, because this list is likely to grow in coming years. Florida’s free and reduced lunch eligible Hispanics outscore the average for all students in several of the above states, including California.
In 2007, a family of four needed to earn $20,650 to be qualified for a free lunch, $38,203 for a reduced price lunch.[i] Nationwide, approximately 80 percent of free or reduced lunch children qualify for a free lunch. Median family income in California, by comparison, is $64,563.
Likewise, Florida’s African American scores have soared since 1998; from significantly below the national average for African Americans to significantly above. In 2007, Florida’s African American scores nearly tied the average score for all students in California.
If Florida can maintain the current momentum, Florida’s African American students will have their own long list of states that they outperform. As it stands, they already score higher than the average for all students in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Florida’s reform record provides hope to a nation struggling to improve education and to close racial achievement gaps. Given the proper incentives, public schools can improve. Disadvantaged children can learn at levels previously thought reserved for the privileged. It now falls to current Governor Charlie Crist, who served as Florida Education Commissioner during the Jeb Bush administration, to keep these gains going.
Demography need not become destiny, in the Southwest or elsewhere. Reform minded governors must realize that the education unions fought Jeb Bush every step of the way. The prize, an education reform legacy which is the envy of the nation, was well worth the fight.