Eric J. Smith: Florida is closing the achievement gap

Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.

Upon observing the recent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday I am reminded of, and inspired by the pioneering work he did to bring equality to our nation. His efforts are iconic and his impact on the history of our country is far-reaching, covering all avenues of society and culture. His legacy represents a landmark of positive change that has helped our nation to grow into the superpower it is today.

Included in that legacy is the profound impact he had on bringing equality into our schools and ensuring all children, no matter their color or individual circumstances, are given access to a high quality education. I think he would be proud to see how far we have come over the last several decades in terms of making this equal access possible, and in making sure that we always work tirelessly to prevent any student from slipping into the abyss of the uneducated.

I think he would be especially proud to see what we have accomplished in education here in Florida, a state as rich in diversity as it is sunshine. A recent ranking by a nationally respected publication indicates that Florida has the fifth best education system in the country out of all other states and the District of Columbia. This high ranking by the Quality Counts report follows a string of improvements over the last four years that has seen Florida move up the charts an average of nearly 3 spots each year. But as impressive as such improvement is, I think it’s the detail behind our progress, and the reason Florida has climbed so high, so fast, that would make the late Dr. King so very proud of what we are accomplishing.

Digging into the research behind Quality Counts’ conclusions, we find a wealth of significant milestones that directly relate to solving Florida’s education equality issue. According to the report, we are tied for first in the nation in narrowing the achievement gap between affluent and non-affluent eighth grade students and are third in narrowing it for fourth graders. We also have the second highest increase in the country in our graduation rate; progress that has no doubt come from very large increases in the number of minority students successfully graduating from our schools.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, the gold standard in academic measurement among states, also play a prominent role in our climb to fifth place, and the results for minority and other underrepresented students on these exams shows equally encouraging news. NAEP 2009 reading scores for African-American 4th and 8th grade students are seven and five points higher than their national counterparts, respectively, and Hispanic students outpaced their peers across the country by 19 points in 4th grade and 12 in 8th grade.

As important as foundational work is for every student, we’ve long realized that their success after they walk across the stage depends on our ability to prepare them for college or a career. This means getting them involved in rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement (AP) exams and encouraging them to take college preparatory exams like the SAT. Florida has had great success here as well. We’re seeing double-digit increases in African-American and Hispanic AP test-takers compared to single digit increases for the nation. The same holds true for SAT test-takers. Better yet, these participation increases are not coming at the cost of academic performance. Florida’s minority students have significantly higher scores than their national peers on the SAT and their increases in passing scores (3 and Above) on AP exams is a sight to behold.

Even with all of this good work being done here in Florida, I know it’s clear to everyone that we still have a long way to go. Achievement gaps between white and minority students are still far too wide, and graduation rates are far too low. But if our progress compared to the nation is any indication, we’re on to something here in the Sunshine state and our children’s lives are being changed for the better because of it.

Dr. King had a monumental dream of equality for all; a dream so powerful that it commanded change and brought forth a movement of lasting progress that has continued over the last 40 years. I think the evidence is pretty strong that when it comes to equality in education, Florida has been at the forefront of that progress. And when Quality Counts eventually ranks us number one in the nation I know it will be because we’ve embraced his dream and made it our life-mission to create brighter futures for all our children.

Dr. Eric J. Smith

Florida Commissioner of Education


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