Jeb Bush's education reforms, 10 years later: Grades better, though graduation rates lag

Back in the 1990s, Florida had a reputation — deserved or not — for graduating too many kids who couldn’t read or write. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who saw himself as an education innovator, hit on a grand plan to make schools accountable.

He called it the A+ Plan for Education.

It morphed into the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and took on newfound importance: Schools would be assigned a letter grade, A through F, based on exam scores.

A decade later, the FCAT and school grades — along with a host of other changes — have placed Florida front and center in the educational reform movement.

“Florida has the strongest accountability system in the country,” said Stacey Rutledge, assistant professor in educational leadership and policy at Florida State University. “Teachers and principals — the entire rhythm of their lives is based on this. Things like housing prices are linked to school grades.”

Which is not to say everyone likes the system. Many parents, teachers, principals and students despise grades because of the stigma D’s and F’s place on schools labeled failing. They deplore a culture of high-stakes testing that dictates what gets taught in the classroom.

And state high school graduation rates are still near bottom.

But there have been accomplishments: Students’ scores on standardized tests have improved. And Florida has been lauded for closing the gap between white and minority students.

Here, on the 10-year anniversary of Bush’s plan for remaking education, is a look at its dramatic impact on the state.


Since Florida began grading schools in 1999, the percentage of schools receiving A’s and B’s has more than tripled from 21 percent to 79 percent. The proportion of D and F schools dropped from 28 percent to 7 percent. The improvement came even as the state continually raised the standards on which the grades would be based, affording the schools little time or resources to adapt.

“Lots of people thought grading schools would hurt public education,” Bush told The Miami Herald in an e-mail message. “Instead, students, parents, teachers and principals rose to the challenge and exceeded expectations.”

Florida was the first state — and is still the only one — to grade schools. On a smaller scale, some individual districts, including New York City, have modeled parts of their school grading systems after Florida.

The state was ahead of the curve in creating its model, though others have since caught up — as has the federal government, implementing its data-driven No Child Left Behind law in 2002.

Critics say improved school grades show only that students are getting better at the FCAT, not that they are necessarily learning more. But students have also improved their scores on other standardized tests they don’t prepare for.

One of them — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, billed as “the nation’s report card” — showed 70 percent of Florida fourth-graders reading at grade level in 2007, compared with 53 percent in 1998.

Those results lifted Florida’s national ranking. In 1998, Florida placed 35th on the fourth-grade reading test. The state ranked 22nd in the same category in 2007, though the results have been less stellar in math and in eighth grade.

Bush called the state’s reforms “a national model for raising achievement,” but added they are not sufficient for students competing with their peers around the globe — though he will be pushing other states to adopt parts of the A+ plan this fall.


Earlier this month, the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education highlighted Florida as one of three states to shrink the test-score gap between white and black fourth-graders in reading over the past 15 years.

In January, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, credited Florida’s reforms with increased student gains — particularly among blacks and Hispanics.

The Heritage Foundation found the improvements were not at the expense of high-achieving students, whose scores went up, as well.

A 2007 analysis by the more liberal Urban Institute found that changes brought by the A+ plan bolstered achievement among students in low-performing schools. The pressure of a bad school grade seemed to shift the school’s focus to students who needed it most.

That was one of the plan’s goals: to identify struggling students and ensure they at least get a basic education, said Mary Jane Tappen, deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction and student services at the state Department of Education.

“Before the accountability system, they weren’t getting that,” she said.


Not all of the trends have been good.

Florida’s high school graduation rate — considered a key measure in education — remains among the lowest in the nation.

This month, Johns Hopkins University found that Florida — along with Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and South Carolina — has widespread high concentrations of schools with low graduation rates. While the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Education, was 73.4 percent in 2006, Florida’s was 63.6 percent.

The state, which measures the graduation rate differently, says 71 percent of seniors got their diplomas that year — and that the graduation rate has risen 15 percentage points from when school grades first came out to last year.

“However you count it, it’s low,” said Alan Richard of the nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board.

Some kids may be dropping out because they repeatedly fail the 10th-grade FCAT. (Failing the test in the third grade can also hold youngsters back from the fourth grade.)

States where students don’t need to pass a standardized test to get a diploma have higher graduation rates.

Nobody is saying that’s better than having teens graduate as functional illiterates. But to keep the FCAT requirement from discouraging struggling students, schools should get kids the extra help they need, Richard said.

More of that may happen soon, since graduation rates — along with other measures, like how students do on college-entrance exams — will be taken into account in high school grades for the first time in the upcoming school year.


FCAT critics and cheerleaders agree that everyone benefits when a school system can identify troubled students. The test does that, and some wish the story would end there.

But critics, including many parents, teachers and administrators, have a problem with labeling a school A, B or F without factoring in whether the school serves privileged suburban kids or children from poorer urban neighborhoods.

Grades do not consider a school’s demographics — or teachers’ efforts to reach those students, said Lynne Miller, an associate professor of education at Florida International University.

“The FCAT is designed more one-size-fits-all,”’ she said.

Furthermore, the FCAT is given in English, but a Spanish- or Creole-speaking student who recently moved to the United States with little formal education still needs to pass the exam to graduate (though some immigrants may be exempt from reading and writing portions).

Along with the stigma of giving a school an F comes punitive measures, which can range from the removal of a principal and faculty members to closing the school.

And teachers at high-performing schools, often in well-to-do areas, can qualify for bonuses based on school grades — even though teaching kids in a tough neighborhood is arguably more of a challenge.

While schools with low grades do get an influx of resources from school districts and the state, that’s to boost scores and not necessarily a long-term incentive to lure teachers there.

With the stakes so high, shouldn’t there be a leveling of the playing field?

“The entire community is traumatized by the word FCAT,” said state Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat who voted against the A+ plan and has since successfully pushed to change it so students who fail the test have other ways to move to fourth grade or graduate.

School district chiefs like the focus on student improvement, but say that D and F grades have scarred neighborhoods and disillusioned parents and students.

“Don’t put the scarlet letter on them,” Broward Superintendent Jim Notter said. “Because that doesn’t tell the rest of the story of what’s going on inside those walls.”


Some educators and parents protest that grades have pushed teachers to narrow the scope of what they teach to focus on what counts on the FCAT.

“Teachers are told, ‘You’re an F and you have a year to improve,’ “ said Latha Krishnaiyer, a past Florida and Broward Council PTA president. “How did they improve? They taught to the FCAT.”

Officials insist there’s no way to teach to the test because questions are not known in advance and the FCAT does not rely on students memorizing information.

But tests with real consequences like the FCAT undeniably affect how teachers plan their classes, said Lyndsay Pinkus, director of strategic initiatives at the national nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.

“Once those educators embrace the data, it fundamentally changes the way things are done in schools,’’ she said.

Earlier this month, the state sent letters to 13 districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward, after finding that fourth-graders in some schools used similar phrases in the writing portion of the FCAT.

While not cheating, the so-called “template writing” may indicate that teachers emphasized certain sentences to turn the writing test into more of a fill-in-the-blank exam.

In schools, curriculums have also narrowed to shift more time on FCAT skills.

“Up until now, social studies wasn’t necessarily in the picture; neither was science,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. “Very critical areas to learning, such as art and music, are allowed to fall off.”

Notter cited some high school electives — music, art and drama — falling victim to budget cuts.

But Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush’s nonprofit Foundation for Florida’s Future, pointed to a 2007 Florida Senate study that found enrollment in arts classes increased in grades three through seven since the 1999-2000 school years, and only slightly dropped for grades eight through 10.

The education department’s Tappen said some narrowing might be inevitable in schools that have lost their way and need to be restructured.

"There’s an open wound, and it’s bleeding,” she said. “To stop the bleeding, you have to get them to focus on something.”

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Comments » 5

Prospero writes:

MUTTON BEING PASSED OFF AS LAMB-----Nothing more !@#$%^&*()

glbarber2003 writes:

Wait a minute ! Former Gov. Lawton Chiles started "FCAT" . Jeb Bush ruined it by throwing money into the equation. Because his brother was in the White House it was imperative that he make Florida the #1 education state. He did not much care how he did it either. The outcome was to be #1. The dumbing down was the means of achieving the outcomes which in fact he did not even come close. How can you be at the bottom in graduation rates and boast a model education program. Jeb wanted it to be the best so he could ride on the record to the White House. It did not work and would not make any difference if it did. I think America is tired of middle of the road politics. How in the world can anyone look at our results and boast any thing even resembling success?

Patricia Levesque executive director and chief embellishment director of Bush's golden goose committee Foundation for Florida's Future cannot even give a positive example of success because there is none!

FCAT as we know it is designed for one thing "failure". It was and is designed to maintain a docile,compliant,obedient, work force period. I would welcome the opportunity to debate the perceived good and the actual bad of FCAT!

someoneelse80 writes:

Did Ms. Levesque forget Walter Haney's/Boston University work studying the effect of the grade three retention policy on Florida's grade 4 NAEP scores?
Did Ms. Levesque also forget that the comparison years include one which pre-dates the retention policy and one which does not? Why would one be impressed to see results showing the ten year olds who made the state swim team swim better than a random sample of ten year olds? Could we be seeing spin or could it be that Jeb's right hand education person has no clue since her background is in finance and an MBA? I invite Ms. Levesque to respond. She can also explain why I should clap if, after all the bologna of the A+ plan, percentage of reading proficiency in grade 10 students has
gone from 37 to 38?
Why aren't we using a less easily gamed and more accurate and fair value added system? Could it be politics or public relations?
I invite Ms. Levesque's response. I will say one thing; the system may be good for level 3 students who score near the level 3 cutoff. Google Derek Neal's Proficiency Counts:Left Behind by Design.

lenorjard#383592 writes:

The FCAT and school accountability was started by Jeb Bush a few years before his brother was in the White House. For all of the complaints against the test, it has made individual students more accountable for their own education. Schools are also held accountable to the state for their student's learning. Not all teaching is "teaching to the test".

someoneelse80 writes:

I can guess you may have a different opinion if you really understood the A+ plan.

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