A troubling picture of Florida high school student performance: Will a new governor spark improvement?

high school classroom
High school classroom. Photo via pixabay.

Testing giant ACT is releasing new scores from crucial exams used for college admissions, and the results for Florida’s Class of 2018 are both stagnant and troubling.

About 80 percent of teens tested scored so low in all four subjects — English, reading, math and science — that they wouldn’t be considered prepared for key college classes, according to ACT’s analysis.

Black students scored the lowest of all racial categories – even when they took a slate of classes meant to prepare kids for college — raising questions about whether their courses were tough enough.

On average, Florida students tested in the Class of 2018 scored a 19.9 on ACT. That’s below the national average and lower than scores from comparable states.

The troubling picture of high school achievement comes as both gubernatorial candidates – Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum – have been touting education reforms to improve Florida schools.

But whether any of the candidates’ ideas can significantly improve student achievement at the high-school level will likely be time-consuming and difficult in Florida, the third-largest state school system in the nation, based on enrollment.

For example, Florida’s score of 19.9, a composite of all four ACT subjects, generally hasn’t budged in four years. It was 19.8 in 2017, but 19.9 in both 2015 and 2016.

“We know it is not good,” to score a 19.9 and see that so many students weren’t considered college-ready, says Stacey Rutledge, an associate professor in Florida State University’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

She cautions that test results can be complicated to compare and interpret, and that some students simply don’t test well.

In addition, education officials and families shouldn’t rely too much on college entrance exams because other factors, such as grades, can better predict if students will do well in college, Rutledge says.

Still, the college entrance exams are essentially a measure of what students should know in key academic subjects by the time they leave high school.

The ACT tested nearly 120,000 students in Florida – public, private and home-schooled students – in the Class of 2018. Students in that graduating class would have taken the exam during high school and the results were released Wednesday.

Results from a similar test taken by Florida students  – The College Board’s SAT college entrance exam – will be released nationally next week, according to a spokesman. Last year, about 147,000 Florida students took that exam.

Across the nation, the average ACT score dropped from 21 to 20.8, with some 1.9-million students tested in the Class of 2018.

ACT officials also note that, “In addition, students’ average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years—down to 20.5 (on a scale of 1 to 36), continuing a slide from 21.1 in 2012 to 20.7 last year.”

“The negative trend in math readiness is a red flag for our country, given the growing importance of math and science skills in the increasingly tech-driven US and global job market,” ACT CEO Marten Roorda says in a press release. “It is vital that we turn this trend around for the next generation and make sure students are learning the math skills they need for success in college and career.”

Florida’s ACT math score dropped from 19.4 to 19.3. But scores in the other subjects went up slightly. English went up from 19.0 to 19.2; reading, from 21 to 21.1 and science, 19.4 to 19.5.

However, the number of Florida test-takers dropped by about 10,000 students in 2018, the data show, which may or may not have impacted scores. The Florida Department of Education did not know why the decline occurred. ACT officials say it could have been a “short-term trend.”

But states that have larger percentages of students tested — or even all students tested — often see lower ACT scores because the pool of students is diverse, with different academic backgrounds.

The ACT data show that Florida’s black students on average scored only a 16.7 on the exam, though in many cases, the teens took a core set of classes designed to prepare them for college.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby says: “It’s likely a matter of rigor. We have found that the quality of the courses offered in schools can differ dramatically. Some schools do not have the same quality or rigor of curriculum as others. Two courses at two different schools can both be called “Algebra II,” for example, but not teach the same level of skills.”

How can Florida improve that situation and others?

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum wants to invest $1-billion into public schools, including raising starting teacher salaries to $50,000 and boosting pay for veteran teachers in the classroom over a several-year period.

But how the plan would play out – if it gets funded – may or may not improve student achievement.

“If you simply took all of the teachers working now and say, here’s another $10,000 or $2,000, and you did nothing else, then you should not expect (student) achievement to go up,” says Michael Cohen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Achieve, Inc., an education reform group.

The idea would be to “build a system that prepares and recruits and attracts and retains and supports the best candidates possible, and give them professional growth and learning opportunities,” Cohen says.

“If you have a system approach, you will get better results.”

Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis proposes putting more money directly into classrooms, and wants to “expand choice in education,” such as public charter schools run by private groups, and voucher programs that allow students to attend private schools with public money.

Whether those expansions would increase student achievement also is not clear.

Rutledge, the associate professor at FSU, says the school choice issue is complicated.

For example, some charter schools may not succeed, Rutledge says, but others may “make a difference in children’s lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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