Miami Herald: Education rankings difficult to fathom

Aug 18, 2009

By PatriciaMazzzei

Aug. 12 — Everyone knows that Florida ranks at the bottom when it comes to education. Except when it ranks near the top.

Depending on whom you ask, where you look and what year it is, Florida’s standing compared to the rest of the nation is all over the map.

Here’s Gov. Charlie Crist, speaking in June: “Things are very good in education in Florida. We’ve gone, in fact, from 31st in education out of the 50 states two years ago to the top 10 in our country according to Education Week — and that’s a great thing.”

Compare that to Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho the same month: “There should be no pride in declaring we’re 47th nationally in funding.”

Which to believe?

“One of the big problems in Florida is there has been a lot of complacency among citizens because they have been fed a line of gibberish,” said Lawton “Bud” Chiles III, president of the Lawton Chiles Foundation, named after the late governor. The foundation’s initiative Worst to First is trying to make health and education issues a priority in Florida.

“It’s bunk, it’s just wrong to say that we’re 10th in education or to say we’re progressing nationally,” Chiles said. “It’s just clearly not true.”

The problem is that different groups look at different parts of the education equation, making it difficult to get a complete picture, said Patrice Iatarola, education policy professor at Florida State University.

“To have anything capture all of the educational system in Florida is just not possible,” she said.

Some rankings measure education spending, while others compare student performance. Making a connection between the two isn’t simple.

Such comparisons are worthwhile for the public, Iatarola said — to an extent.

“We think that people make better decisions when they have full information,” she said. “Except having full information ends up being convoluted.”

The numbers are more than just political fodder. Some business groups have complained that attracting talent to Florida is difficult because the state’s education funding doesn’t stack up.

Rankings became a rallying cry for parents and school districts clamoring for more state money after 2006 U.S. Census data placed Florida 50th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in how much of an individual’s income goes to public schools — $33.51 of every $1,000, compared to the U.S. average $43.34.

The “worst in the country” label stuck, despite another Census chart in the same report ranking Florida 39th in per-student spending on education — $7,759, compared to the U.S. average $9,138.

The 2007 Census data released last month moved Florida up to 36th in that category, though it remained 50th in the other measure.

State officials have countered with other rankings, like Education Week magazine’s annual “Quality Counts” report, which put Florida at 10th in the nation in overall quality of education this year.

Never mind that the same report also gave the state an F for education spending and college readiness. Or that the ranking of 31st, from 2007, can’t really be compared to 2009’s figures, because the magazine changed the way it crunched its numbers.

States measure student progress in different ways, using their own standards and tests. That’s why you can’t really compare FCAT results to student achievement elsewhere, Miami-Dade’s Carvalho has said.

“A state-to-state comparison does not make sense,” he said.

But that hasn’t kept folks from trying.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, called “the nation’s report card,” ranked Florida 22nd in fourth-grade reading in 2007 based on its own test, with less stellar numbers for math and eighth-grade scores.

The American Federation of Teachers, a union, placed Florida 24th in the nation for teacher pay in 2006-07, with an average salary of $47,219 — though the state ranked 12th that same year for beginning teachers’ pay, at $37,600.

Then there are high school graduation rates.

A June report by Education Week and the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education ranked Florida 47th in graduation rates. About 57.5 percent of seniors graduated with a regular diploma, compared to 69.2 nationwide, according to the “Diplomas Count” study.

Not so, said the Florida Department of Education. According to its calculations — which include special diplomas and GEDs — the graduation rate was 71 percent in 2006, and 75.4 percent in 2007.

Tom Butler, a spokesman for the state’s education department, said how useful rankings are depends on what numbers they are based on. “If the methodology is flawed or unclear then the results become unreliable and can often lead to confusion,” he said in an e-mail message.

There is no misunderstanding when it comes to education funding: School districts, teachers and many parents want more, regardless of where Florida ranks.

A 2008 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found reading scores and freshmen graduation rates nationwide held steady while per-student spending skyrocketed. More funding can boost student learning, researchers said, but it is how the money is spent that matters.

And if Florida’s quality rankings have climbed despite budget cuts, some legislators have suggested school districts can make do without more state dollars — an idea Carvalho and Broward Superintendent Jim Notter adamantly oppose.

“Imagine what you could do with more [money],” Notter said, before referring to the Education Week quality ratings. “Are we going to be satisfied with 10th?”

Student Abel Iraola, an incoming senior at Hialeah Senior High School who traveled to Tallahassee in March to protest budget cuts, said he has long heard that Florida is among the worst states for education.

“We don’t need to keep being told over and over that we’re doing badly,” said Abel, 17. “We know that. We’ve got to focus on fixing that and improving our system.”