Not everyone thinks that something remarkable has been happening in Florida. Without the low-performing 4th graders who have been held back for a year, the average scores of the remainder jump upward.
One of the pillars of the Florida accountability reforms has been the policy, introduced in , of not promoting 3rd graders unless they perform at a minimally acceptable level on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test FCAT. Between and before the social promotion policy affected 4th grade , however, it increased by eight points. In , 27 percent of 3rd graders scored at the lowest level on the reading portion of FCAT, but by only 16 percent did so, a 40 percent reduction in the pool of students eligible for retention.
This helps explain why actual retention rates declined by 40 percent between and But in fact the trend line shows no such spike and decline, only a steady movement upward. Is it possible that gains are realized most easily when scores are initially very low? On this question, opinion is quite divided. Some think gains are more easily realized if students are already accomplished, while others think those with high scores have neared a ceiling, making it difficult to raise their scores further.
However that issue is settled in principle, it cannot account for the fact that Florida made striking gains while states with equally low scores did not. In , all those states but Florida were still clustered near the bottom. But if the Florida achievement gains are genuine, and not imaginary, they might still be attributed to factors over which schools have little or no control, for example, demographic changes in the state. Such is the claim of those who say that demography is destiny.
Were demographic change the best explanation, however, student performance in Florida would be worse than ever. By , that percentage had climbed to just over 50 percent. Similarly, the percentage from low-income backgrounds eligible for free or reduced-price lunch rose from 43 to 45 percent between and But however valuable the program may prove to be, it cannot explain the gains in achievement observed thus far. The amendment did not require implementation until , and none of the students participating in the Florida early childhood program had reached the 4th grade by , the most recent year for which NAEP data are available.
Much the same can be said for a second constitutional amendment—the class-size reduction amendment—approved by Florida voters in As in the case of preschool, there is some research evidence that suggests class-size reduction can yield significant gains in student achievement in the early grades. Florida state law now mandates no more than 18 students per classroom in grades K through 3, and no more than 22 students in grades 4 through 8. But the constitutional amendment is being implemented slowly. Through the —09 school year, administrators have been considered in compliance if their schoolwide average class sizes were under the constitutional limits.
According to the state department of education, from to , average class sizes in the early grades were reduced from roughly 23 to 16 students in pre-K to grade 3 and from 24 to 18 students in grades 4 to 8.
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Still, if class-size reductions had any effect on achievement gains between and , it could only have been toward the end of the period. Nor can the gains in education be easily attributed to changes in public school funding. This was less than half the increase in the national average over the same period. One can pretty much rule out these possible explanations for the Florida success story.
The gains are not an artifact of the elimination of social promotion in 3rd grade or of the ease with which low test scores can be lifted. Nor can they be attributed to demographic change, the introduction of preschool education or class-size reduction, or greater per pupil expenditure. One must look elsewhere for an explanation. The most likely remaining candidate is school-focused reforms, which have the vigorous support of the EEP side of the education reform debate.
Over the past decade, Florida has introduced a comprehensive program of school reform that has five main points: school accountability, literacy enhancement, student accountability, teacher quality, and school choice. Together, the reforms created a system that appears to have focused teachers and students on the task of learning in a way that has yielded the dividends we have highlighted above.
School Accountability. In , the state legislature enacted a law that required students in grades 3 through 10 to take annual tests in reading and mathematics, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or FCAT. The assessment had two distinctive features lacking in most other accountability systems, including the one prescribed by the federal law, No Child Left Behind NCLB.
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First, it gave each school in the state a very clear grade of A to F based on the results from the test and offered a specific fiscal incentive to schools to try to reach as high a grade as possible. Conversely, schools receiving an F grade twice over a four-year period were asked to carry out a variety of reforms. Beginning in , the accountability system included measures of student progress from one year to the next, a feature not incorporated into NCLB. That gave schools with low-performing students an opportunity to raise their grades without imposing upon them the extremely difficult task of matching the performances of schools whose student body enjoyed a preferred demographic portfolio.
Clear, realistic incentives to improve were made available to schools across the state. Focus on Literacy. Teachers in grades K—3 took mandatory reading training courses over a three-year period. Students in grades 6 through 12 who demonstrated insufficient reading skills were provided remedial instruction.
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Student Accountability. Beginning in , Florida students were asked to pass a more demanding examination if they were to be given a high school diploma. In addition, Florida lawmakers, as discussed above, curtailed the social promotion of 3rd-grade students who performed at very low levels in reading. Apparently, they benefited more from an additional year of instruction than they would have had they been pushed on to 4th grade when they were not well prepared for the more challenging material.
Teacher Recruitment. Florida enacted new policies for broadening the pool from which teachers were being selected. Florida supplemented that channel of recruitment with a variety of alternative paths.
Districts were allowed to offer alternative certification. Today, more than one-third of all new teachers in Florida are coming to the profession through alternative certification programs. The alternative certification program may have had a particularly significant impact on Hispanic students. In one respect, he appears, as it were, as the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven.
He is changeable in his opinions, in his thoughts, reflections, and actions. He is idle, vain, and visionary, without being governed by any correct principle.
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He comes into existence, as it were, like a butterfly, flutters around for a little while, dies, and is no more. He had his being in the eternal worlds; he existed before he came here. He is not only the son of man, but he is the son of God also. If we take man, he is said to have been made in the image of God, for the simple reason that he is a son of God, and being his son, he is, of course, his offspring, an emanation from God, in whose likeness, we are told, he is made.
He did not originate from a chaotic mass of matter, moving or inert, but came forth possessing, in an embryonic state, all the faculties and powers of a God. As the horse, the ox, the sheep, and every living creature, including man, propagates its own species and perpetuates its own kind, so does God perpetuate his. But while he occupies this exalted position, and is in the image of God, yet he possesses simply, as a man, only the powers which belong to man; and is subject to weakness, infirmity, disease and death.
And when he dies, without some superior aid pertaining to the future, that noble structure lies silent and helpless, its organs, that heretofore were active, lively and energetic, are now dormant, inactive and powerless. And what of the mind, that before went back into eternity and reached forward into eternity? And what of its powers? Or what of that spirit, which, with its Godlike energies, its prescience [or foreknowledge] and power, could grasp infinity?
What of it, and where is it? If … there is a spirit in man which reaches into futurity, that would grasp eternal progress, eternal enjoyments, and eternal exaltations; then those glories, those exaltations, those capabilities and those powers must be the gift of some superior being, power, or authority to that which exists in man. It is of a principle that emanates from God, that originates with a superior intelligence, whose plans, and powers, and capabilities are exalted above those of mortal man, as the heavens are above the earth, or as the majestic works of the Great Creator throughout the infinitude of space are superior to the puny efforts of the children of mortality.
It is for the exaltation of man to this state of superior intelligence and Godhead that the mediation and atonement of Jesus Christ is instituted; and that noble being, man, made in the image of God, is rendered capable not only of being a son of man, but also a son of God, … and is rendered capable of becoming a God, possessing the power, the majesty, the exaltation and the position of a God. As a man through the powers of his body he could attain to the dignity and completeness of manhood, but could go no further; as a man he is born, as a man he lives, and as a man he dies; but through the essence and power of the Godhead, which is in him, which descended to him as the gift of God from his heavenly Father, he is capable of rising from the contracted limits of manhood to the dignity of a God, and thus through the atonement of Jesus Christ … he is capable of eternal exaltation, eternal lives and eternal progression.
Through [Christ] mankind are brought into communion and communication with God; through His atonement they are enabled, as He was, to vanquish death; through that atonement and the power of the Priesthood associated therewith, they become heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, and inheritors of thrones, powers, principalities and dominions in the eternal worlds.
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