Mark McGriff: 'Quality Counts' rating doesn't tell all

Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 at 12:35 a.m.

State leaders are already bragging about Florida's No. 8 ranking in Education Week's newest Quality Counts report on the nation's schools. And while that ranking sounds great, it's important to understand what it really tells us about Florida's schools.

Quality Counts does look at things like test scores and graduation rates, which is what you'd expect in a report on educational quality. But most of the indicators used to rank the states are about policies and procedures the researchers believe are important, like a strong accountability system and annual evaluations of teachers.

If you have those policies and procedures in place, your state's ranking goes up. If you don't, it goes down.

Are those policies and procedures important? Absolutely! But they're not enough to ensure high-quality schools.

So what about the academic indicators? According to Quality Counts, Florida is ranked 7th overall in K-12 achievement, same as it was in 2009. But that's because the researchers didn't update that part of the report this year, which means the ranking is based on test scores that are more than two years old and a graduation rate that's more than five years old.

And even state officials acknowledge that when it comes to academic achievement, Florida is behind the rest of the nation.

At a state meeting about two months ago, an expert with the Department of Education made a presentation that highlighted a lot of test scores for middle and high school students in math, reading and science, including SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement scores.

Unfortunately, Florida ranked pretty low in most categories compared to other states, mostly in the 30s and 40s. The expert's conclusion was that "compared to the rest of the U.S., Florida students in middle grades and high school lag behind," and that "Florida students are pretty much last in the nation for science."

That's certainly nothing to brag about.

Another part of the Quality Counts report that state leaders probably won't talk much about is the school spending category, where Florida gets an F again this year. But even that's misleading.

The F is based on numbers from 2007, which was actually a pretty decent year. Since then the state's taken a heavy axe to education funding, which means Florida's failing grade in that category doesn't really reflect how bad things are now.

The report does give the state very high marks for the way it distributes school funding, which is why the state's overall ranking for school finance is a not-too-awful 31st in the nation. But that just means that all school districts in Florida are poorly funded.

Yes, our district does tend to do better academically than Florida as a whole. Our very high SAT and AP results are good examples.

But we still have too many at-risk students who struggle in the classroom and don't graduate from high school.

The seven-period day and summer school for high school students are prime examples. I had access to them when I attended Gainesville High School, but my sons won't because of state budget cuts.

No wonder Florida's graduation rate is ranked 47th in the nation. Nowadays students just don't have the opportunities their parents had to earn the credits they need to graduate on time.

Our schools and teachers are doing great work considering the enormous challenges they face, including societal problems like poverty, unstable families and other factors that have a significant impact on student achievement. But they can't keep doing that work if lawmakers continue to hack away at education funding.

In less than two months, the Florida Legislature will open its annual session and begin hashing out a new budget. Some legislators will point to the Quality Counts ranking as proof that Florida schools are adequately funded, just as they did last year.

We shouldn't allow them to use that number to duck their constitutional duty to provide high quality schools for all students.

Mark McGriff is chair of the Gainesville-based Citizens for Strong Schools.

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