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DeVos Praises Florida's NAEP Performance Despite Significant Declines

Last year, when the National Asssessment of Educational Progress scores for 2017 were released, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a point of highlighting Florida's relatively strong results. Amid mostly stagnant scores and growing achievement gaps nationwide, DeVos said at that time, Florida's students represented an excepr; they had posted notable gains in 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade math. She lauded the state for "rethinking education" and for focusing on accountability, literacy, teacher certification, and expanding school choice.

Let's forward to the 2019 NAEP resultsOn Wednesday, DeVos in a speech praised Florida again for its NAEP performance that she said were rooted in smart policy decisions, while sharply criticizing the results nationwide.

But in fact, Florida's NAEP reading scores dipped from both 4th and 8th graders.

"More states and communities could learn from Florida and Mississippi," she said, referring to their decisions to prioritize policies that didn't involve big school spending increases. (Mississippi was the only state this year to post gains in 4th grade reading.) 

Florida's 2019 NAEP scores aren't really (as DeVos put it last year) a "bright spot" in a gloomy picture. In fact, the state's 4th and 8th grade students' average reading scores on the NAEP declined, as did their achievement levels (the respective shares of students scoring advanced, proficient, basic, or below basic). More specifically, the average scale scores in reading for Florida's 8th grade students fell significantly, from 267 to 263, while the share of students scoring at advanced or proficient levels declined from 35 to 34 percent.

What was Florida's average score for 8th graders in reading for 2015? It was 263. In other words, Florida's performance on reading dipped back pretty much to where it was before the big gains in 2017 that DeVos praised:


For 4th graders, the average scale score in reading declined from 228 to 225, another statistically significant dip. Meanwhile, math achievement for Florida's 4th and 8th graders was flat in 2019 compared to 2017. 

For 2019 and dating back to the start of this century, Florida's average reading and math NAEP scores for 4th graders have mostly clocked in at significantly higher than the national average, although that's not really the case when you look at 8th graders. DeVos' larger point appeared to be that recently, Florida's story represents a positive transformation reflected in NAEP scores. (Even for this, however, keep in mind that comparing NAEP scores across several years can lead you to all kinds of pitfalls.) 

Still, the newest round of results for Florida demonstrate that using NAEP scores to advance a policy agenda in one year doesn't necessarily hold up perfectly when the next year's results come out. DeVos did not mention Florida's decline in NAEP reading scores in her Wednesday's speech. 

DeVos has close ties to the state, has visited schools there many times since becoming education secretary, and has consistently lauded Florida's approach to education.

More context: Since 2002, Florida law has required 3rd graders to pass a literacy exam in order to progress to the 4th grade and has focused significant resources on the issue. That landmark law proved a turning point in discussions nationwide as well about the importance of early literacy. And several states have adopted some version of it in subsequent years. But it's also attracted critics who say that retaining students struggling for literacy is a punitive policy and not the most effective way to serve their needs. 

Otherwise, DeVos on Wednesday had very harsh words for the nation's performance in general. "It pains me to say, they're not going to like what they see," DeVos said, referring to parents. "The numbers are reason for deep concern. ... This country has a student achievement crisis."

And she used the speech to advocate for more educational freedom, such as school choice and different models for providing education, and no more "massive" increases in school spending. 

For more on the general phenomenon of NAEP scores getting used and misused, see our Education Week colleague Stephen Sawchuk's story on "misNAEPery" back in 2013.

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