There are two conflicting narratives about public education in Florida.
One comes from those who argue that accountability reforms have been too harsh on students and schools, and that we should turn the classroom clock back to the 1990s.
The other comes from those who point to a growing body of evidence that reforms not only are working, but are doing so in remarkable fashion. Those of us in the latter camp received yet more evidence this month.
According to the 10th annual College Board Report to the Nation, Florida once again ranks among the top five states in the percent of high school graduates who have passed an Advanced Placement with a score of 3 or higher. When you consider Florida has a 59 percent student poverty rate, we are excelling by elevating traditionally disadvantaged students.
There are two reasons for this success.
First, the state enacted specific policies to encourage AP participation. These include paying AP exam fees and giving teachers bonuses for their students who pass the exams. Those bonuses go up substantially for teachers in low-income schools.
Second, the state began laying the foundation for AP success in the early elementary grades by raising academic standards. There has been a particular emphasis on literacy. For example, we stopped promoting third-graders who could not read and instead held them back for a year of intensive intervention. And the reason was simple students who are struggling readers in fourth-grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
Ensuring children can read is ensuring they have a chance to be successful in life.
Sixty-three percent of our low-income fourth-graders were functionally illiterate in 1998, meaning they had little chance for a future in school. Since then they have advanced almost three grade levels in reading. We are only one of five states to significantly reduce the poverty achievement gap.
Students who probably would have washed out of school 20 years ago now are sitting in college-level classes.
In 2003, only 1,403 low-income high school graduates passed an AP exam in Florida. That number has grown more than 800 percent to 12,774.
Encouraging AP participation will not succeed without a pipeline of students who can do the work. We have far to go in expanding this pipeline because too many students still are not passing the exams. But that we have made remarkable progress and have become a national leader in AP success, particularly for disadvantaged students, is not in doubt.
The AP results are only one indicator. I could give many more, including Floridas recent seventh place finish in the prestigious Quality Counts ranking of K-12 academic achievement.
Prior to 1999, Floridas public education system was widely lampooned as a national disgrace. For decades the state turned a blind eye to the mass failure of children because that was a convenient arrangement for far too many adults. I suggest we think twice before returning to an era in Florida when public education translated into an optional education for those who needed it most.
Patricia Levesque is executive director of the Foundation for Floridas Future, a nonprofit education organization that works to improve the quality of education for Sunshine State students.