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Radical Eyes for Equity: Test-Based Achievement Mirages: Florida Edition

One of the key flaws of education reform since the 1980s is that education policy tends to be more about political and popular fads resulting in copy-cat state education policy than about addressing provable educational need.

For example, as Cummings, Stunk, and De Voto show about state reading policy:

Florida, which passed it’s Just Read, Florida! retention-based third-grade literacy policy in 2002, is largely considered the trailblazer of such policies (CCSSO, 2019). Florida’s policy includes several provisions designed to improve students’ literacy in grades K-3, including early identification of students who need additional supports, ongoing monitoring and communication with families, a range of literacy interventions, and third-grade retention for students who do not meet a certain score on the state assessment. By 2021, 19 states had adopted retention-based third-grade literacy policies that contained several elements of Florida’s policy.

Cummings, A., Strunk, K.O., & De Voto, C. (2021). “A lot of states were doing it”: The development of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Journal of Educational Change. https://

However, with the release of the 2019 NAEP reading scores, Mississippi supplanted Florida as the miracle-du-jour.

These copy-cat urges have been grounded in almost exclusively grade 4 standardized test scores.

As I have documented about the over-reaction to Mississippi, the 2019 grade 4 scores were in line with decades of steady progress (thus no miracle), but most people failed to put the grade 4 scores in broader contexts that showed Mississippi grade 8 scores remained low and the racial gap remained steady even as Mississippi improved average scores.

Mississippi, in fact, was benefitting from the Florida model, mostly driven by grade retention.

New for 2023 is a moment of reckoning for Florida: “a Stanford University study of state-level standardized tests showed that Florida’s ‘learning rate’ was the worst in the country — by a wide margin.”

This analysis is taking into account longitudinal test scores instead of focusing only on early grades:

· Florida kids regress dramatically as they age in the system. Since 2003, Florida’s eighth grade rank as a state has never come close to its fourth grade rank on any NAEP test in any subject.

· The size of Florida’s regression is dramatic and growing, especially in math. Florida’s overall average NAEP state rank regression between fourth and eighth grade since 2003 is 17 spots (math) and 18 spots (reading). But since 2015, the averages are 27 spots (math) and 19 spots (reading).

Florida’s education system is vastly underperforming

Therefore, political leaders have tried to keep the focus on grade 4: “Tellingly, DeSantis ignored the eighth grade results, which came out far worse than fourth grade — just as they have in every NAEP cycle since 2003.”

So here is the dirty little secret about education reform and education policy.

First, test data are weak reflections of learning, and how we measure learning significantly impacts those scores.

Next, at the earlier grades, testing tends to reflect reductive versions of skills. For example, many states test pronunciation of nonsense words (thus, there is no meaning or comprehension) and call that “reading.”

Research for decades has shown that systematic phonics instruction can raise those scores, especially for young students, but that increase in pronunciation is not correlated with comprehension and that advantage disappears by middle school.

There is a similar pattern to how grade retention can raise test scores in the short term but those retained students fall behind again in a few years and are more likely to drop out.

In short, increased test scores in the early grades are often test-based achievement mirages, not increased learning.

As students and assessments become more sophisticated, these early increases are much harder to maintain for a number of reasons—some related to brain and overall development, and some related to teaching and learning conditions as well as instructional challenges.

This reckoning for Florida is a clarion call for all education reform across the U.S.

We must stop playing partisan politics with our schools, and we must resist copy-cat fadism when it comes to education reform.

Recommended Resources

A Critical Examination of Grade Retention as Reading Policy (OEA)

Reading Science Resources for Educators (and Journalists): Science of Reading Edition [UPDATED]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...