Florida’s Middle Grades Study: What states should Florida really look to for lessons about how to improve math and reading achievement?

I’m thrilled that the Florida Legislature has sent the bill on studying the state’s problems in middle school to Governor Scott’s desk.  What’s most encouraging about this is that Florida will have to stop pretending that everything is going great at all levels and take a look in the mirror.

But now that the middle grades study is on its way to becoming law, I’ll allow myself to look at the fine structure of the study.  The bill language implies that the states Florida should emulate in math are Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Washington.  In reading, the bill points to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Especially given Florida’s socioeconomic challenges, I’d pick target states a little differently.  I’d start with the plots of 2015 NAEP 8th grade results (% proficient in math and reading) against percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (an imperfect measure of socioeconomic challenges – but what else do we really have?) shown below.



To start with, ignore the distinctions between “Non-model states” and “Model states”.  The plots give very nice illustrations of the strong correlation between student achievement and socioeconomic metrics.

Now it’s worth noting that all of the states named in the Middle Grades Study bill are low FRL states – Connecticut (37.1%), Massachusetts (38.3%), Minnesota (38.4%), New Hampshire (27.8%), New Jersey (38.0%), Vermont (39.4%) and Washington State (46.3%).  In contrast, there are not many states with higher FRL rates than Florida (58.4%).

So let’s take a little different approach to picking out target states for Florida.  Instead of just picking the states that have high proficiency rates on the 8th grade assessments, let’s pick states from throughout the FRL spectrum that beat their FRL peers.  My picks are shown in the plots in red as “Model States”.

In math, I still include four low FRL states, led by Massachusetts (38.3% FRL, 51% proficient).  The other three low FRL states I would include are Minnesota (38.4% FRL, 48% proficient), New Hampshire (27.8% FRL, 46% proficient) and New Jersey (38.0% FRL, 46% proficient).  All look much stronger than Florida (58.4% FRL, 26% proficient).  But is it possible to have stronger proficiency numbers than Florida even with more low income students than the top states?  Three states say “yes”, including Arizona (53.4% FRL, 35% proficient), Indiana (49.2% FRL, 39% proficient) and Florida’s usual rival, Texas (60.1% FRL, 32% proficient).  If it were up to me, I’d include those three high-FRL states in the study.

I would do a similar selection in reading, in which Florida’s proficiency rate is a sorry 30%.  I would look at four low-FRL states – Connecticut (37.1% FRL, 43% proficient), Massachusetts (38.3% FRL, 46% proficient), New Hampshire (27.8% FRL, 45% proficient) and Vermont (39.4% FRL, 44% proficient).  And I’d include two high-FRL states – Kentucky (54.8% FRL, 43% proficient) and Tennessee (58.8% FRL, 33% proficient).

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