Florida Improves Test Results in Key Areas, Student Subgroups

Published May 1, 2008

A leading education researcher says a closer look at national test scores makes the case for other states to follow the reform programs implemented in Florida by former Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

Dr. Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute for Public Policy, a research group based in Arizona, said Florida’s dramatic rise in achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) cannot be ignored. The 2007 test results are the first following Bush’s eight years in office with an education program focused largely on broad, substantial reforms.

“The charts are pretty clear that something happens after 1998. You don’t see data like that very often,” Ladner said. “If I were Governor Bush, retired from office now, I’d be quite proud of these kinds of test scores.”

Bush’s three private school choice programs were enacted between 1999 and 2001.

Breathtaking Results

The NAEP improvement has been most marked among Florida’s minority and poverty students. Among Hispanic, African-American, and low-income students, fourth-grade reading achievement improved twice as much as the national average since 1998. The mean scores for all three subgroups are now at or above basic proficiency.


Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a nonprofit education reform organization founded by Bush in 1995, noted Florida’s African-American students now outperform 73 percent of their counterparts across the nation, as opposed to only 17 percent in 1998. Similarly, Florida’s Hispanics rose from the 52nd percentile to the 92nd percentile among their ethnic group nationwide.

In addition, Ladner notes, in the past decade Florida’s Hispanics have moved past the overall scores of 15 other states in the crucial metric of fourth-grade reading. Most notably outperformed is Oregon, which serves a much smaller share of minority students.

“In a sense, the results speak for themselves,” Ladner said. “It’s quite breathtaking.”

Combining Techniques

During his two terms in office, Bush enacted an ambitious set of school reforms. Ladner credits the state’s relatively large and successful school choice programs, established early in Bush’s tenure as governor, as bringing about the improvements in achievement.

Though in 2006 the Florida Supreme Court struck down Opportunity Scholarship vouchers for students in chronically failing public schools, Florida still has the most generous corporate tax credit scholarship program and the largest voucher program for special-needs students nationwide. The Washington, DC-based Center for Education Reform also rates Florida as having one of the strongest charter school laws.

Ladner also believes a key factor in the success is Florida’s A-Plus Accountability Act, which includes stronger sanctions for failing public schools than in any other state.

“There is something really effective about combining these two techniques,” Ladner said.

Casting Doubts

Kevin Welner, director of the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Education in the Public Interest Center, questions Ladner’s argument for a causal connection.

“Recent research does suggest a possible relationship between high-stakes school accountability and the student test scores in Florida,” Welner said. “The data available, however, only allow us to speculate about causes.”

Besides Bush’s choice and accountability reforms, Welner says other possible factors may include the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) or other education policies, as well as economic trends.

“Most likely, the score difference was caused by an interaction between one or all of these, plus other factors,” said Welner.

Levesque, however, notes many of Bush’s reforms pre-dated NCLB.

Instructional Upgrades

Ladner says he was drawn to the Florida example through a debate launched this winter by City Journal magazine, in which writer Sol Stern proclaimed more attention should be given to imposing better curricula than to expanding school choice.

“There is absolutely nothing exclusive about doing instructional and choice-based reforms at the same time,” Ladner said.

Levesque noted reading instruction was at the heart of Bush’s second-term education reform agenda, following the earlier success of choice and accountability programs. In his second term, Bush created the Florida Center for Reading Research and increased funding for reading coaches to ensure scientifically based reading instruction reached more Florida students.

“We knew if kids didn’t know how to read, they had no chance for success in the future,” said Levesque.

Unfinished Reforms

Levesque also observed that significant test improvements started appearing among Florida’s middle-schoolers in 2006–which corresponds with students’ development under Bush’s earlier choice and instructional reforms.

“It’s real,” Levesque said. “You can see the progress in the performance level track upward over time.”

Levesque said her foundation is not only actively resisting legislative efforts to roll back school accountability but also is working to improve and expand state testing at the high school level.

“What Governor Bush has always said is, ‘Success is never final, and reform is never finished,'” said Levesque.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

“I’ll Have What Florida’s Having,” by Dr. Matthew Ladner, Goldwater Institute Center for Educational Opportunity, February 19, 2008: http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/AboutUs/ArticleView.aspx?id=2036

2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, U.S. Department of Education: http://www.nationsreportcard.gov