The periodical Education Week recently published its annual Quality Counts State Report Card. Florida received a B- and ranked 6th nationally, so immediately the usual suspects engaged in the typical self-adulation. The Republican Party of Florida and Governor Scott rushed to tweet out their congratulations to each other for these successes.
I don't relish being the guy constantly throwing cold water on the party, but a closer read of the Education Week report reflects what most parents of schools kids already know. All is definitely not well in Florida’s schools. The report grades the 50 states on a variety of education components, and where Florida did well is not nearly as important as where we tanked.
Florida received top grades for its accountability and assessments. In other words, we got an “A” for the amount and quality of testing we conduct in our schools. This should come as no surprise to Florida teachers who feel forced to spend more time giving tests than actually teaching coursework.
But testing is not teaching, and, in fact, in the category of “achievement” Florida was clearly subpar. We earned a C- from Education Week because, according to its report, too many kids are not proficient in math or reading. Plus, our state’s graduation rate was ranked 44th in the nation. The report didn’t event take into account that graduating seniors’ ACT and SAT scores were among the worst in the country or that 50 percent of those who graduate need remedial work if they get to college.
Of course you get what you pay for, and, indeed, our poor achievement score was very close to the D+ we received in the “education funding” category. According to Education Week, Florida ranks near the bottom in every relevant education spending metric.
So before they uncork champagne bottles, Floridians should know that the failure of Gov. Scott and the legislature to support public schools adequately has created a palpable achievement deficit in our state. Getting straight A’s for having lots of tests is not the same as getting A’s on the tests. Weighing a malnourished dog every day doesn’t make him any better. We shouldn’t be celebrating how sophisticated our testing regimen is when we perform so poorly, and too many young people don’t graduate -- or graduate lacking skills to reach their full potential in the job market.
Don’t misunderstand. I believe there have been achievement gains in the few subjects tested and strongly believe accountability instruments are important. We do need to know what is working and how institutions are performing as well as how well students are learning. But Florida’s problem is that we have a system that measures competence in only a few subjects. So rather than accounting for all the things that matter in schools, we make all that matters only the things we account for.
And compounding the problem is a funding shortfall. Florida schools, with such limited budgets, can’t afford to emphasize anything but what is tested and what is part of the school grading system. The result is a terrible kind of triage in public education where electives, higher-level coursework, extra-curricular activities are all neglected or, worse, eliminated because they don’t improve a school’s grades.
A strong accountability system needs to broaden not narrow the curriculum. That cannot happen if you only have accountability without adequate school funding. Until Tallahassee understands the need to raise the bar as well as the financial investment, Florida will continue to celebrate mediocrity at the expense of true achievement.
That’s because testing is not teaching.
Dan Gelber was a State Senator and former House Democratic Leader from Miami. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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