The release of the “Nation’s Report Card” on October 24 produced mixed responses from individual states regarding their students’ scores in English language arts (ELA) and math, delivered by the nationally administered assessment. Some states, like Tennessee, met the news of lower-than-expected scores by pointing to the impact of the recent pandemic as a defense for the decline in scores. The impact of COVID and the potential effects on students, due to lost instructional time, has been a hotly debated issue.
Florida, a Republican-led state with close proximity to Tennessee, took the opposite approach.
In the wake of Florida’s positive results, Governor DeSantis sent out a press release using NAEP numbers to defend his response to COVID and his commitment to keeping schools open, “We also knew that younger and at-risk students would be the most impacted if schools were closed, and the results speak for themselves. In Florida our 4th-grade students rank #3 in Reading and #4 in Math, achieving top 4 in both English and Math for the first time in state history, while lockdown California and New York aren’t even in the top 30.”
The good news doesn’t arrive without caveats, however. NAEP focuses on outcomes for fourth- and eighth-grade students, and Florida’s eighth-graders did not show the same level of achievement as that of their younger counterparts. Here, the state ranked 21st and 38th respectively, losing eight points to the national average in both categories – a significant difference by NAEP standards. This drop is consistent for Florida and NAEP over the last 20 years.
An argument could be made for two longstanding Florida state policies as primary drivers for the discrepancy between grade levels – massive third-grade retention and vouchers – both of which are being implemented or expanded this year in Tennessee.
In Florida, third-grade retention works to ensure that those struggling readers who take the test in fourth grade have benefited from an added year of instruction, due to being retained the previous year. Only Mississippi, Arizona, and Oklahoma retain students at a comparable rate to Florida. In addition, Florida provides retained students with an individualized reading plan, and assignment to a highly qualified teacher, along with at least 90 minutes of daily reading instruction with targeted interventions. Tennessee has no such provisions.
Florida’s voucher plan allows students in third grade a means in which to avoid retention by accepting a voucher and enrolling in a private school. Using vouchers – or scholarships, as they are often called – as a strategy to avoid retention is so prevalent that it was noted by The Orlando Sentinel. In its recent story on Florida’s voucher programs, The Sentinel reported, “Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as “testing refugees.”
A study conducted by the Urban Institute in 2017 study of Florida’s voucher marketplace, the only recent study of its kind, found that 61 percent of voucher recipients abandon their FTC voucher within two years, while 75 percent abandon the voucher within three years. Those numbers may have changed since, but even so, they still mark a not-insignificant number of students returning to public schools before eighth grade, possibly without needed remediation.
When comparing the NAEP results and policy implications between states, it is difficult to draw a line between causation and correlation, due to a large number of variables between states. Tennessee’s new retention legislation comes with other caveats that parents can use to avoid retention for struggling scholars, such as summer camps or year-long tutoring. Legislators have expressed an openness to making further modifications.
This potential concession is welcomed by state education policy advocates. “The law will eventually change, and is likely to be addressed this session. It has created a lot of political pressure” said J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee. “Too many policies have been concerned with right or left, instead of right or wrong. We need to get this right,” he added.
The 113th Tennessee General Assembly is scheduled to convene at noon (CST) on Tuesday, January 10, 2023.
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TC Weber is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He also writes the blog Dad Gone Wild. Follow TC on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected] He’s the proud parent of two public school children and the spouse of a public school teacher.