Do Florida’s results on the 4th grade reading NAEP exam tell us everything we need to know about the state’s public schools? Or is there more to education than that?

Are Florida’s results on the 4th grade reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress the most important measure of the state’s K-12 success?

In a recent Florida Politics opinion piece, Lloyd Brown argued that it is, because “If a student can’t read by the end of the fourth grade, almost nothing else matters.”

But that’s like arguing that the most important part of the Daytona 500 is the first hundred miles because if you don’t finish the first hundred miles you can’t win the race.

In 2019, the most important single educational measure is mathematical skill in 12th grade – because there is little that students can do to earn middle class incomes if they don’t have some number sense and algebraic skills. With apologies to Sue Woltanski (of whom I’m a big fan even though she doesn’t always agree with me), I think the standard high school math exit exam should be the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT). PERT is the test used by Florida’s institutions previously known as community colleges (now the Florida College System) to decide whether students are ready for college-credit math courses or whether they need “developmental” math courses first. If every high school graduate could earn a score of 123 on the PERT (the score necessary to qualify for the course called College Algebra) many of the state’s issues with postsecondary education would evaporate and every student would be well prepared to earn postsecondary certificates and associates’ degrees that provide access to robust careers with middle class incomes.

Sure high school graduates should be able to read. But math has been a bigger problem for Florida than reading on the SAT and ACT exams taken mostly by 11th and 12th graders. And given the growing shortage of certified high school math teachers, this math problem will not be solved any time soon.

Why does it matter that Brown argues that Florida’s results on the 4th grade NAEP reading exam are the most important metric of the state’s K-12 success? Because he then goes on to argue that since Florida does well on 4th grade reading that the state’s public schools are just fine and the present funding levels are sufficient. Florida’s public schools are not fine. The math scores earned by the state’s students on the SAT and the ACT are proof of that.

Of course, most of us want our public schools to do more than produce minimally decent average scores on standardized math and science exams. We want our public K-12 schools to give every student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential academically. For some students, that means learning reading, writing and math well enough to pass the PERT and earn a postsecondary certification in dental hygiene or welding or web design. For other students, that means capping off a stellar academic career with 5’s on the Advanced Placement Physics C exams, or taking Calculus 3 at a local university or college, or serving as editor for a school newspaper, or earning a seat on Florida’s All-State band. Attracting the teachers and other personnel needed to give students those opportunities requires significant investments by school districts and state government.

There is another bit of Brown’s argument worth mentioning: He compares Florida’s educational outcomes (at least the few he values) to those in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, as if those three states are our competition. They aren’t. Florida’s students are competing with those from Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey and Texas. And Singapore, China and Finland.

Brown’s argument raises the Really Big Question that we haven’t yet addressed as a state: What opportunities should Florida’s public schools offer students? Should those opportunities be limited to learning math, reading and writing at a basic level? Or should our schools have the resources to help students achieve at world class levels? Florida’s leaders seem to be drifting toward the idea that schools really only need to provide a basic education – and that’s all we are willing to pay for. I hope they change their minds.

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