Florida school report card? Needs improvement

The Nation’s Report Card is OK, and the grades in America and Florida are poor. Blame whoever or whatever you want – the pandemic, distance learning, the way students are taught. But please don’t try to analyze it and pretend that you will find only good news. There just isn’t much.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, came out this week, the first since 2019 — in other words, before the pandemic hit. The exams, given every 30 years, test a wide selection of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country in math and reading. It is among the few tests that directly compare students across states.

Students at DeBary Elementary School eat lunch Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009. More than half of Central Florida public school students are receiving free or reduced-price school lunches this year, a sharp increase that educators say is a telling indicator of impact.  recession of families in the area.  Even Seminole County, the wealthiest school district in the area, has been hit hard, with four out of every 10 students now receiving federally subsidized lunches.  Orange just hit 55% this week, with Lake, Osceola and Volusia also exceeding 50%.  Statewide numbers for this school year aren't yet available, but a 10-year comparison shows a huge jump in the number of kids needing lunches — from 26 percent in Seminole in 1999 to 40 percent this year.  Officials are encouraging families to apply, but fear federal subsidies may not cover the rising cost of feeding so many children each school day.  (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel) B58111071Z.17/12/2011

It’s important to look at the overall results because it’s easy to single them out to jump to unwarranted and Panglossian conclusions. For example, compared to the rest of the country, Florida fourth graders performed well in math and reading. Isn’t this a victory for in-person learning, as championed by Governor Ron DeSantis in the fall of 2020 — and this editorial?

Florida fourth grade readers scored exactly the same as three years ago, 225, while American students overall dropped 3 points, from 219 to 216. Still, it’s a win, no, not losing ground during a pandemic? Well, before 2019, Florida’s fourth grade readers hadn’t done this badly since 2011. Going back to where things were ten years ago is not progress.

Personal instruction was necessary but not sufficient, and was only one of many other factors at play. For example, Florida fourth graders were second in the nation in reading, with 39% proficient. Quite good. However, Massachusetts was No. 1 with 43% proficiency and did not order schools to fully reopen for in-person instruction until spring 2021, well after Florida. The reality is more nuanced than the open or shut case of schools.

And fourth-grade reading is Florida’s bright spot, where scores have only been flat instead of falling. In math, fourth-grade performance in Florida actually dropped 5 points, from 246 in 2019 to 241 in 2022. Nationwide, scores dropped from 240 to 235. Let’s break it down: Florida was ahead in 2019 by 6 points and maintained that same margin this year, even as overall math performance dropped in Florida and across the country. Deteriorating at the same rate as other students in the country is not a victory. Still, 41% of Florida fourth graders were proficient in math, sixth best in the nation. That’s where the “good” news ends.

In eighth-grade math proficiency, Florida fell to average or worse, coming in at No. 34, tied with California and others. Only 23% of Florida eighth graders were proficient in math, which was worse than the national average and well below Massachusetts, which was again at the top. Florida’s eighth-grade readers didn’t fare much better. The state tied with six states for 25th, with 29% of its students reading proficiently, again below the national average and worse than California and New York, among others.

So if Florida is going to take credit for doing relatively well — graded by the pandemic curve in fourth-grade scores — it has some explaining to do with what happened to its eighth-graders.

Overall lesson? When you look at all the numbers, the pandemic has been a disaster for the education of children in Florida and the United States. Crunching numbers to find a happy outcome misses the mark entirely. Students have suffered, and scoring political points by claiming that this or that has solved the problem actually obscures this harsh reality: Children currently in public education are at risk of falling a generation behind in their learning. This is a reality that politicians have to deal with. Pretending otherwise serves no one. No student left behind? In fact, most of our students have been left behind.

This editorial reflects the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

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