Funding & Other Baloney, Part I: 4th Grade Reading Scores and “Efficiency”

I will venture a guess that no one truly believes the measure of a high quality education system should rest on reading proficiency levels in 4th grade. Yet, I just spent weeks following the Citizens for Strong Schools v Board of Education (CSS v BOE) trial, where the defense repeatedly argued just that: Florida has high 4th grade reading scores on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card”) and, therefore, our pathetically low level of K-12 per pupil education spending simply means our education system is “efficient.”

That, my friends, is Accountabaloney.

First, Florida’s high 4th grade reading scores are, clearly, a direct result of our mandatory 3rd grade retention policy. We retain our poorest readers in 3rd grade, allowing them an extra year of “practice” (i.e. development) before they are measured on the 4th grade NAEP assessment. In fact, Dr. Jay Greene, a witness for the defense (watch him here at around 1:35) testified that Florida has retained so many third graders that there is no longer any “stigma” attached to grade retention (tell that to the mother of a child threatened with mandated retention, I dare you). Regardless, Florida’s 3rd grade retention policy disproportionately retains low income, Hispanic and African American children and likely explains Florida’s “success” on the 4th grade NAEP for these groups. (The well documented, long lasting negative effect of grade retention will be a subject of an upcoming blog, in the meantime you can read this or this). Even so, how well a child reads when they are 10 years old remains a strange metric of the overall quality of an education system.

Additionally, when you hear someone celebrate Florida’s 4th grade NAEP scores you should ask “How do we do in 8th grade?” Florida’s 8th grade results are NOT stellar (learn more here). Any so-called “gains” our retained 4th graders made have been lost by 8th grade. Our 8th grade math results are especially dismal and significantly falling off the national average.

It is certainly true that Florida underspends on education, as demonstrated on this latest study from Education Law Center/Rutgers, “Is School Funding Fair? America’s Most Fiscally Disadvantaged School Districts“, which examined education spending 2008-2013 and  gave Florida an “F”, placing it near the bottom in public education spending. As reported in The Times Union:

  • Florida ranked 42nd for education funding per student ($7,033 compared to the average national funding level per student of $9,766.80)
  • Florida ranked 49th for the number of teachers per 100 students in public schools.
  • Florida showed the second steepest decline in education funding, behind Hawaii, between 2008 to 2013, the years the study measured.
  •  while Florida’s was , after adjusting for regional differences and district sizes.
  • Florida spends nearly the same on high-income schools as it spends on poor schools, earning Florida a “C” in that category.
  • Florida ranked 47th among states for how it apportions teachers: low-poverty schools here have more teachers per 100 students than high-poverty schools.

DOE representative responded to The Times Union:

“Unfortunately, the Education Law Center’s report focused solely on funding levels without considering the state’s return on its investment in education,” said Meghan Collins, Director of Communications.

“Florida’s public education system is being funded at historic levels, and is ranked 11th nationally for k-12 achievement. Furthermore, our fourth grade students are among the best readers in the world and our high school graduates rank third in the nation for performance on advanced placement exams. We are proud of these accomplishments and believe Florida should be commended for its excellent student outcomes, which is our top priority.”

Ah, the “efficiency” argument and those 4th grade reading scores again…

During his testimony in the CSS v BOE trial, Dr. Greene suggested that Florida’s education funding must be adequate because proficiency levels were slowly improving.  He compared this to knowing a child was getting enough food because he was growing.  He was unable to define what minimal amount of funding is required to provide a high quality education because there is no universal standard for “proficiency”. He explained that proficiency standards set by the state are NOT objective numbers but are “simply based on a judgement by the state about performance and what performance it’s expecting from students and schools.” He compared the lack of an objective standard for proficiency to the inability of people of different heights to agree on “what is tall.”

So, let me get this straight. The state sets the budget AND the state sets the proficiency standards based on its own judgement about performance expectations. Hmmm… The state creates the test and then sets the bar that determines proficiency levels so, essentially, they could manipulate the system to assure the appearance of adequate funding. Hmmm… How can such a fluid measure be used as evidence of a quality system over time? What is tall?

As a parent whose children have attended public school in Florida, I have seen what my district has been able to do with the limited amount of funding from the state; a level of funding the state, apparently, believes is adequate to obtain the proficiency rates they “expect from students and schools.”  While this funding allows my local schools to get enough students to minimal proficiency standards to earn stellar school grades (a grading system ALSO manipulated by state policy), can the overall education they receive really be described as “high quality”?

An estimated 25% of the school year (or more) is spent practicing, prepping and administering state mandated assessments. That is expensive, but it hardly qualifies as high quality. In many schools, recess has been eliminated for the youngest learners, social studies and science courses have been incorporated into reading lessons, and art and music instruction has all but disappeared.  Is that high quality? Teachers lament that the required pacing guides no longer allows them the time to delve deeper into topics, to follow the class’ interests with projects, take field trips, and engage in in-depth study of topics of interest. There is barely funding for field trips, anyway. Gifted and Special Education programs have been decimated. For half of the year, computer labs are used primarily for testing and test prep. School counsellors have become testing coordinators and teachers spend their scarce prep time managing data…  Should we still call such a system high quality, just because of some standardized test scores? We think not.

For decades, districts have been notified of meager state funding and asked to make do with the funds offered, without regard to the cost of quality programming. At the same time, unfunded state mandates like requiring the technology infrastructure necessary for computer based state testing has effectively decreased available classroom funds. Districts have been forced to cut programs once felt to be essential to a quality education. Parents are asked to bring in reams of copy paper and other school supplies. Schools run out of pencils. Teachers resort to “Go-Fund ME” campaigns to obtain basic supplies. Low income schools, often with the lowest test scores, have been hardest hit.

Let me simply suggest that, in the absence of quality programming, 4th grade reading scores can not be the measurement of high quality and the amount of per pupil funding required to give ALL children the high quality education they deserve is “something more than what we get now.”  This is not to say that more money spent improperly is warranted but, clearly, there could be less money spent on testing and test prep and more money spent in the classrooms, on authentic learning experiences.

Celebrating how little we can spend to get impressive reading scores from our retained 4th students doesn’t mean we’re efficient, it means we’re either cheap or delusional. As long as the State’s accountability metric is grade level proficiency on a standardized test, one where THEY get to manipulate the proficiency bar, the state will continue to be able to game the system.

The Florida Department of Education needs to stop celebrating the 4th grade NAEP scores. A high quality education cannot be adequately measured by grade level test scores, especially those of 10 year olds. Seriously, no one believes that. Celebrating our “efficiency” without a legitimate measure of quality is Accountabaloney.


4 thoughts on “Funding & Other Baloney, Part I: 4th Grade Reading Scores and “Efficiency”

  1. Pingback: Funding & Other Baloney Part II: How You Spend It Matters A Lot | accountabaloney

  2. Excellent commentary.
    This isn’t just baloney, this resembles what our cows (when we were still raising beef cattle) left in the pasture. 😦


      • It sure does, doesn’t it? Holding kids back a grade because they won’t “test well” in the next grade. Eliminating recess, art, music, minimizing social studies and science and in-depth study of topics, unavailable supplies like copy paper and pencils……..
        How is this something to “celebrate”?


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