The American public has been overrun with inspiring stories of miracle cures for education ills that don’t involve a lot of money, time, or educator input—and turn out to be mirages. Florida under Jeb Bush is no exception. The former governor has recently emerged in the media as an education reform leader, thanks in large part to the praise hoisted upon him by President Obama at a joint appearance last month in Miami. But Bush’s credentials were established earlier by his administration’s much-touted success in improving student test scores.
But like the so-called “Texas Miracle” that helped propel his brother to the White House ten years ago, the accomplishments the younger Bush boasts about are not what they seem.
In 2005, Florida fourth graders made good progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is the only achievement test that students in all states take.
Students around the country made modest gains in their math scores between the 2003 and 2005 tests (there was no 2004 test), but Florida students jumped more, especially Black fourth graders. Therefore the achievement gap between Black and White students shrank significantly.
Flushed with this success, Gov. Bush then co-authored an op-ed piece in the Washington Post with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, claiming “Florida and New York City are leaders when it comes to accountability in education. We have set high expectations for all students, and in key grades we have eliminated social promotion… We grade schools based on student performance and growth so that parents and the public, as well as school administrators, know which schools are working well and which are not.”
A simple prescription!
The New York City gains on state tests were later shown to be inflated, but that wasn’t known at the time.
At Boston College, education researcher and testing expert Walter Haney was skeptical about the Florida NAEP scores. “I couldn’t believe they could do so much in just two years,” he says.
Haney had earlier debunked the “Texas Miracle,” in which that state claimed to have raised achievement scores, cut the drop-out rate, and shrunk the Black-White achievement gap after instituting a high school graduation test. Haney discovered the drop-out rate in Texas was much higher than the state reported.
After that, he got a Ford Foundation grant to collect student enrollment data for all the states.
When schools show dramatic jumps in test scores, the first thing to check is whether the students have changed, so when Haney saw the Florida NAEP scores, he looked at his data on Florida’s students—and came up with some curious grade-to-grade contrasts.
In most of the country, the number of third graders is very close to the number of second graders the previous year, because, of course, those are mostly the same students. But in Florida, from 2002-03 to 2004-05 and again the following year, the number of third graders was roughly 10 percent higher. Then, between third and fourth grades, enrollment suddenly shrank a comparable amount.
What was going on? In 2006, Haney found that Florida had suddenly started flunking large numbers of third graders. Because of the new retention policy, low-achieving third graders were still in third grade when the NAEP 2005 fourth grade math test was given. With only the higher-achieving students taking the test, the scores jumped.
What’s more, the state flunked a much higher proportion of Black than White students—no wonder the achievement gap shrank.
Gov. Bush had actually alluded to what Haney discovered when he and Bloomberg wrote that they had stopped social promotion in “key grades.”
That would not be so bad if it turned out that when students are kept back, they do better in the long run. Unfortunately, says Haney, the opposite is the case. Those children are more likely to drop out.
Another silver bullet solution that didn’t work.
Teachers College at Columbia University also examined Florida’s retention policies and other factors that have driven the state’s test scores.