George and Jeb Bush (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Florida is in the education news again with the appointment of Tony Bennett as the Sunshine State’s new education commissioner, this after the voters of Indiana decided they didn’t want him to be in charge of their public schools anymore. Florida, of course, is home to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who launched school reforms more than a decade ago that have had influence across the country. Hailed as a “miracle,” the reforms have not lived up to their hype. Here is a look at Florida’s education reform record, by Julian Vasquez Heilig, an award-winning researcher and Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin. A version of this appeared on his Education and Public Policy blog.

By Julian Vasquez Heilig

Critics have said that the so-called “miracle” in Florida public schools that were engineered by former governor Jeb Bush is no more real than the education “miracle” in Texas that spawned president George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind a decade ago — another elegant illusion of numbers. Others say the skeptics are wrong in their analyses of recent educational success in Florida. So what is the real story?

While working on the Education: Texas vs. California vs. New York vs. Nation policy report, data on Florida was collected but ended up on the cutting floor. For your educational policy and descriptive statistical pleasure, here is the data from the past decade for Florida below. I won’t extensively discuss the Texas, California and New York results or detail the methodology; you can see that here. Note: Florida did not give the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2000.

The 4th grade NAEP scores is where Jeb Bush gained his educational policy credentials. Reuters stated:

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush soared to rock star status in the education world on the strength of a chart. A simple graph, it tracked fourth-grade reading scores. In 1998, when Bush was elected governor, Florida kids scored far below the national average. By the end of his second term, in 2007, they were far ahead, with especially impressive gains for low-income and minority students.

So let’s get to it.

4th Grade NAEP Read      
State 2002 2009 CHANGE
California 205.9 209.8 3.8
New York 222.4 224.4 1.9
Texas 216.9 218.9 1.9
Florida 214.4 225.7 11.3
National Rank: 4th Grade NAEP Read    
State 2002 2009 CHANGE
California 41.0 48.0 -7
New York 12.0 15.0 -3
Texas 29.0 33.0 -4
Florida 31.0 10.0 21
4th Grade NAEP Math    
State 2000 2009 CHANGE
California 213.6 231.7 18.1
New York 226.6 240.6 14.1
Texas 232.7 240.5 7.8
Florida N/A 241.9 N/A
National Rank: 4th Grade NAEP Math  
State 2000 2009 CHANGE
California 40.0 45.0 -5
New York 22.0 26.0 -4
Texas 6.0 27.0 -21
Florida N/A 10.0 N/A

In reading, Florida outperformed California, Texas and New York in 2009. Florida increased their ranking from 31st in the nation to 10th in the nation. In math you see a similar trend in 4th grade. Florida showed the highest scores in 2009 of the most populous states and were again ranked 10th in the nation.

Of course there is criticism of these data. Dr. Walt Haney who debunked the Texas miracle attributes the Florida miracle scores in 4th grade to retention in 3rd grade. Others have argued that the NAEP scores are valid in Florida regardless of the ~10% of students that are held back in the Sunshine State. So lets move on and see if we observe these stupendous 4th grade results elsewhere in the Florida data.

8th Grade NAEP Read      
State 2002 2009 CHANGE
California 250.5 252.6 2.2
New York 263.9 264.3 0.3
Texas 262.1 260.4 -1.7
Florida 261.1 264.4 3.3
National Rank: 8th Grade NAEP Read    
State 2002 2009 CHANGE
California 41.0 49.0 -8
New York 22.0 31.0 -9
Texas 26.0 34.0 -8
Florida 29.0 30.0 1
8th Grade NAEP Math    
State 2000 2009 CHANGE
California 262.2 270.4 8.3
New York 276.3 282.6 6.3
Texas 274.8 286.7 11.8
Florida N/A 279.3 N/A
National Rank: 8th Grade NAEP Math  
State 2000 2009 CHANGE
California 34.0 46.0 -12
New York 19.0 31.0 -12
Texas 22.0 18.0 4
Florida N/A 34.0 N/A

In 8th grade reading, Florida performed above Texas and California and on par with New York and was ranked at 30th in the nation. In 8th grade math, Florida lagged behind New York and Texas, but outperformed California. Florida was ranked 34th in the nation in 2009 for 8th grade math. The 8th grade results are positive, but not outstanding like we observed in the 4th grade as the state falls below the halfway point at 30th and 34th in the nation.

Haney argued that NAEP scores are less important than understanding student progression through school. Thus, graduation is a more important measure of a state’s success. As a result, the analysis of data will now turn to U.S. Department of Education data that examines the number of high school graduates via the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) for public schools in each of the most populous states.

Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR)
  2001-2002 2008-2009 CHANGE
California 72.7 71.0 -2
Florida 63.4 68.9 5
New York 60.5 73.5 13
Texas 73.5 75.4 2
National Rank: Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR)
  2001-2002 2008-2009 CHANGE
California 34 42 -8
Florida 45 44 1
New York 49 39 10
Texas 31 29 2

At the outset, the news appears to be good for Florida in the graduation data as they increased about 5% between 2001 and 2009. However, their graduation rate was the lowest of the most populous states and Florida remained 44th in the nation. Ouch!

Composite ACT    
  2000 2010 CHANGE
California 21.4 22.2 0.8
New York 22.2 23.3 1.1
Texas 20.3 20.8 0.5
Florida 20.6 19.5 -1.1
National Rank: Composite ACT  
  2000 2010 CHANGE
California 23 15 8
New York 4 4 0
Texas 39 33 6
Florida 36 49 -13

Does the news get better on the ACT? Um. No. Florida’s overall composite ACT scores decreased between 2000 and 2010. They were the lowest of the most populous states. They were ranked 49th in the nation.

Composite SAT    
  2000 2010 CHANGE
California 1015 1017 2
New York 1000 983 -17
Texas 993 989 -4
Florida 998 994 -4
National Rank: Composite SAT  
  2000 2010 CHANGE
California 36 35 1
New York 42 47 -5
Texas 47 44 3
Florida 45 41 4

How about the news on the SAT? Florida’s overall composite scores SAT scores also decreased. They outperform Texas and New York, but lagged behind California. Florida ranked 41st in the nation in composite SAT scores. (I know someone lurking out there is thinking that the SAT and ACT scores are dependent on composition of the samplel of course it does. But the data is the data.)

In sum, NAEP scores seemed positive (with caveats). However, do NAEP scores determine the future of Florida’s students? When we consider the measures that actually matter for many kids’ lives: Graduation rates, ACT and SAT… It is only a peek— but you be the judge of the Florida miracle.