Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment have just been released and are, well, uninspiring. Reading achievement, despite significant increases in spending over the past few decades and increasing federal policy intervention in the past decade, has remained flat.

The lackluster results indicate that the top-down approach of federal policy, characterized by No Child Left Behind and the current administration’s policy, has not led to significant increases in student achievement.

But, despite the bad news, there is an outlier among the states– Florida. The Sunshine State’s results are a bright ray:

Reading scores for all students. While 4th grade reading across the country remained flat, 4th grade reading in Florida rose two points and 8th grade reading role 4 points over 2007 figures.
Although these gains are good, the improvements made by sub-groups (special needs students, African American students, Hispanic students, English language learners, and low-income students) are the most impressive.

Special needs students. Special needs students in The Sunshine State made tremendous gains in reading. Gains in 8th grade reading were impressive, with special needs students scoring 11 points higher than they did in 2007. 8th grade special needs students in Florida are now a full 10 points ahead of the national average of special needs students. 4th grade special needs students also made impressive progress, scoring 9 points above 2007 levels in reading. Florida 4th graders with special needs are now 15 points ahead of the national average in reading for special needs students. But special needs students in Florida have an advantage over many other special needs students in most states – McKay Scholarships, which allow them to attend a private school of their choice.

African American students. African American students in Florida made significant gains in 4th grade reading, and now exceed or tie the statewide average for all students in eight states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.

Hispanic students. Hispanic students have made the most impressive progress in reading of all subgroups. Hispanic students in Florida now outpace or tie the statewide average of all students in 30 states. (As of 2007 Hispanic students outscored the statewide average of all students in 15 states).

Achievement in Florida started to trend upward in 2000 – two years after a set of sweeping education reforms were introduced by then governor Jeb Bush. Under Bush’s tenure – and prior to NCLB – Florida implemented the following reforms:

  • Performance pay. Schools began receiving bonuses for student improvement, which go directly to principals and teachers and circumvent collective bargaining.
  • Alternative teacher certification. Florida now allows reciprocity with other state teaching certificates, as well as on the job training and alternative routes to the classroom.
  • Ended social promotion. Third grade students who fail to score at least 1 out of 5 on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) are not passed on to the 4th grade.
  • State standards. Florida implemented rigorous state standards and corresponding assessments, testing students each year in grades 3-10.
  • Grading schools. Florida moved to a more direct and comprehensible way of grading schools, transitioning from a I-V grading scale to an A-F grading scale. Not only does the A-F scale provide transparency for parents, it attracts tremendous media attention each year when grades are released.
  • Options out of failing schools. Florida didn’t just demonstrate through the grading system whether a child was in a failing school, Florida gave parents options to act on that information. Florida parents have access to vouchers for special needs students, corporate tax credits, charter schools, and the largest online learning school in the country.

Unlike the administration’s plan for reauthorization of NCLB, Florida’s actions provide a much more reasonable blueprint for how to successfully raise student achievement. As reauthorization moves forward, conservatives need to push for policies that allow for the flexibility to innovate that Florida has made so successful.

Florida’s strong ‘09 NAEP scores continue an impressive trend—a trend that began well before No Child Left Behind was implemented, which should be a lesson about the limits of federal policy for lawmakers moving forward on its reauthorization this year.