Education Reform: Utah v. Florida

David L. Thomas is a member of the Utah State Board of Education, District 4. He is a former State Senator and Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education.

In an article in RealClearPolitics, “Daniels Closes in on Education Reform Goal” on April 27, 2011, Indiana is lauded for having passed sweeping education reform, following in the spirit of Governor Jeb Bush and Florida. According to the article,

Daniels’ administration studied education reforms around the country and persuaded education experts ranging from Michelle Rhee to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to come to Indiana and offer guidance. The Sunshine State, under Bush, had implemented the most aggressive reforms over a several-year period, but an aide to Bush said with the new reforms, Indiana will surpass Florida.

Bush tipped his hat late Tuesday to Daniels’ achievement in trumping him, telling RealClearPolitics, “Because of the dedicated and bold leadership of Gov. Daniels and Superintendent Bennett, Indiana is leading the nation in having the most comprehensive set of reforms to improve the quality of education.” (The former Florida governor’s endorsement is among the party’s most coveted, and it’s no secret that a big chunk of his admirers stand ready to go to bat for Daniels if he runs.)

Dave Thomas, Utah State Board of Education District 4.

As a conservative Republican, I have been taken to task by various conservative groups over my stance on the Florida education reforms. In sum, I do not believe in the Florida Miracle. While I appreciate Governor Bush’s efforts to reform public education, I simply don’t believe that he was successful in achieving that in Florida. Most would concede that on the Utah State Board of Education, I am perceived, and rightly so, as a leader in the education reform movement. However, I tend to be a pragmatist – I do not want reform for the sake of reform, but rather I want reform that empirically improves college and career readiness. I tend to be very results oriented. Hence, I judge reforms based upon improved test scores. If the reform does not measure up, I discard it and go on to the next one which has promise. Perhaps my profession as an attorney makes me somewhat jaded – I do not believe something at face value. 

That is why I am so excited about the Utah education reforms that are being pushed forward by the State Board of Education in the form of computer adaptive testing and the EPAS system. I have studied the results of these reforms, and they have proven worthy. These are not the Florida reforms. So why did I pick the Utah reforms over the Florida reforms?

I have attached a graphic comparison of the ACT and SAT historical scores of Utah and Florida. They are fairly dramatic in demonstrating that Utah consistently out performs Florida on college and career readiness tests, and not just by a little. Someone mentioned to me that although these statistics are valid, the real worth of the Florida reforms was in vast improvements in minority achievement. Accordingly, I included those historical comparisons of the Hispanic communities in Utah and Florida. Florida’s Hispanic population is trending down on the ACT and is pretty much static on the SAT over time. Meanwhile, the Utah Hispanic population is static on the ACT, but trending up on the SAT. In both cases, Utah Hispanics score above Florida Hispanics. In fact, Utah Hispanics score higher on the SAT than the Florida average as a whole. Again, I am not seeing the Florida miracle.  Overall, Florida is static on the SAT and trending down on the ACT. If the Florida reforms have the effect of poorer college and career testing scores, I don’t want their reforms for Utah and I certainly don’t know why Indiana would want them either. 

In an attempt to be more than fair to Florida, I looked up the NAEP scores over time for both Utah and Florida. Now many know that I am not a fan of the NAEP. The NAEP does not test the entire student population, but just a random sample. However, due to the randomness of the sample, the standard deviation on the results are so high, that it makes the entire test an inaccurate assessment in comparing states to each other – which is what the federal government likes to do. Notwithstanding its draw backs as a very inaccurate test, I have attached a comparison chart. What I found was that Florida 4th graders outperformed Utah 4th graders, but Utah 8th graders consistently outperformed Florida 8th graders. Now I may not be a rocket scientist, but it seems very peculiar to me that this would be the case. If the Florida reforms worked, Florida 8th graders should be outperforming Utah 8th graders. Why are they not? It turns out that one of the Florida reforms is to hold back 3rd graders who are not on reading level.  Hence, the Florida 4th graders who are tested on NAEP are only their best students, while Utah 4th graders include a cross section of all learners. In sum, Florida manipulated the 4th grade NAEP test in order to get a better score, but because it was not a good reform measure, it didn’t hold true and Florida descended back behind Utah by the 8th grade. 

Again, this is not to criticize Florida and the pundits who have championed Florida reforms. Rather it is a call for the reform community, of which I am a part, to take a step back and really evaluate the reforms which we are putting forward. Budgets are tight. Reform is expensive. We need to ensure that we get the most bang out of our buck. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Utah ranks No. 1 in the nation for getting the most out of education dollars. I would encourage all Utah education reformers to work together with the State Board on a plan for Utah that takes proven reforms and implements them statewide.

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1 comment to Education Reform: Utah v. Florida

  • Please tell the entire story on ACT and SAT.
    Florida has dramatically increased access and participation, specifically for economically disadvantaged students.

    Has Utah also increased access?
    What is the minority participation rate?

    There is typically a reason why someone only shares part of the story (e.g., performance and not participation).