The State of Florida Education
Education is important, perhaps increasingly important, for individuals, their families, communities and the state. It promotes inculturation and attempts to provide those skills needed by individuals, their families, communities and the state. It is a good thing. It should be equitably available to all children of school age. The quality of education offered often varies by family incomes. Suburban developers advertise their good schools as an incentive for home purchasers, implicitly contrasting them with schools in less prosperous communities. The quality of schools available to African-American and some Hispanic children are not up to the standard of those available, in general, to non-Hispanic White and some Asian-American children. There are many exceptions, of course, but they are exceptions.
It was a matter of great concern when the recent pandemic interrupted educational routines. Schools closed, children stayed home, teaching took place over the Internet or on a “hybrid” basis. We were fortunate that there was an Internet capable of bringing teaching to children who otherwise would have been left unschooled. Some households have good access, some do not. Some have many computers, some have one or none at all. Some families are familiar with computers and the Internet, some are not. It is not surprising that these differences would, in general, break down in the same manner as other forms of inequity: those students living in prosperous circumstances would benefit most from Internet-delivered education; those students living in circumstances that are not prosperous would benefit less. African-American students living in poverty would benefit least of all. Now that the pandemic’s effects appear to be ebbing we can begin to learn how in fact it affected the educational achievements of school children.
The State of Florida has released the results of 2022 testing of its public school students. According to the Department of Education of Florida, the state “Assessments help Florida determine whether we have equipped our students with the knowledge and skills they need to be ready for careers and college-level coursework.” As student achievement at grade 8 is crucial for such goals as high school graduation, postsecondary studies, careers and the possibility of successful and satisfying lives, we will focus on that, specifically, the assessment of English Language Arts achievement, as the most generally useful skill.
Florida uses a criterion-based five point scale, that is, students are not graded on a curve, but in reference to certain definite criteria: students at Level 1 do not meet those criteria (or are euphemistically “just beginning to do so”), while students at Level 5 meet all the criterion thought to be necessary for a well-educated student. In 2022, half Florida’s grade 8 students were judged as having met the criteria signifying grade-level learning. Of those, 10%, 21,298, did very well, scoring at Level 5. On the other hand, 30% of the 212,986 Florida students tested were found to be at Level 1. That is, 63,896 of the students tested did not meet, or were “just beginning to meet,” the assessment’s criteria—they couldn’t read at grade level. Another 21%, scored at Level 2, they also could not read at grade level. That is, slightly more than half of Florida’s middle school students do not have the essential basic literacy skills expected of them. Or, to put this another way, the schools had not taught half their students what those students had expected to learn in school.
Some districts did better than others. Sarasota, for example, left only 21% of its students at Level 1, bringing 17% to Level 5. Miami-Dade left 26% at Level, 1slightly fewer students than the state average, and brought more than the state average, 12% to Level 5. Hillsborough left 32%, just shy of one third, of its students at Level 1, while 10% were at the state average for Level 5. And then there was Duval, with 37% at Level 1 and 9% at Level 5 and Bradford, with more than half, 55% at Level 1 and just 3% at Level 5. Across this spectrum of Florida school districts, between one-fifth and more than half of grade 8 students had not been taught to read adequately.
The state did not assess student learning in 2020, due to the pandemic, and the results for Florida, in 2021, as elsewhere, were probably not as reliable as one might wish. We can look at 2019 for a baseline in order to get an idea of the progress of the state. State-wide, grade 8 students did better on the assessments in 2019 than in 2022. On the English Language Arts assessment, 23% were at Level 1 (compared to 30% three years later), 11% at Level 5 (compared to 10% in 2022). One could say that 7% more of the state’s eighth graders failed to learn to read at the expected level after the pandemic. That is about 15,000 teenagers. As the percentage of high scoring students hardly changed after the pandemic, those students badly affected by the pandemic disruption were perhaps drawn from the groups who were already at risk.
Considering the same districts as above, Sarasota in 2019 had left “only” 14% of its students at Level 1, compared to 21% in 2022, while bringing 18% to Level 5, nearly same as the 2022 percentage. Miami-Dade left 22% of its students at Level 1 in 2019, a percentage that rose to 26% in 2022, and nearly the same as before at Level 5, 13%. Hillsborough’s 26% at Level 1 in 2019 jumped to 32% in 2022, while the 11% at Level 5 was nearly equal to the 10% in 2022. And then there was Duval, which experienced a change from 29% to 37% at Level 1 and no change at all at Level 5 and Bradford, went from 31% to 55% at Level 1 with little change at Level 5. These districts, and the State as a whole, had been making progress in decreasing the percentages of their students left struggling at Level 1. This progress was more than erased by the pandemic learning loss.
Levels of student learning vary not only by district, but also by racial and ethnic groups. Florida has published English Language Arts data aggregated for grades three to ten, disaggregated by African-American, Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students for each year from 2015 to 2022, with the exception of 2020. Students scoring at or above Achievement Level 3—those meeting at least the minimal criterion for middle school literacy—amounted to 65% of White, 49% of Hispanic and 33% of African-American students in 2019. A non-Hispanic White student was twice as likely as an African-American student to be taught to read as well as expected by the state. The percentages of students at this level in each group increased from 2015 to 2019 by 3% points each for White and Hispanic students and 5% for Black students, slightly closing gap between African-American and both Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students. Nonetheless by 2019, Florida was still teaching many fewer than half of Black students to read as well as expected. But it could be said that progress was being made.
Then came the pandemic.
Results of 2022 English Language Arts data grouped for grades three to ten, disaggregated by African-American, Hispanic and non-Hispanic White students, were 4 percentage points below those in 2019 for non-Hispanic White students and 3 percentage points below 2019 levels for both Hispanic and African-American students. White and Hispanic students had lost all the gains made from 2015, as had Black students for all those made from 2016. The results were even more marked for the students who were left at Level 1. The number of African American students at the level had increased from 34% in 2019 to 39% in 2022; Hispanic students in that category had increased from a quarter, 25%, to 29%, and the number of non-Hispanic White students from 13% to 17%. In each case there were more Level 1 students in 2022 than there had been in 2015 as well as in 2019. Nearly a decade of educational progress in Florida had been erased by pandemic learning loss.
Florida has a historic, systemic, record of failing to educate its African-American students equitably. This is also true for certain of its Hispanic student groups. The pre- and post-pandemic assessment results point to socio-economically based inequities in access to educational opportunities, exacerbating this historic injustice. Those students who, before the pandemic, were most in need of additional support suffered most. Those students who, before the pandemic, were doing well, continued to do well. Inequities in educational opportunities play out through the society, limiting career and cultural opportunities for some, reinforcing those for others. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Florida’s young people continue to go through the state’s school system, to all intents and purposes, uneducated.