Florida: Closing Opportunity Gaps

Key takeaway: Florida’s strong leadership and sustained commitment to policy goals over time has led to impressive gains in reading and math proficiency and an increase of 23,000 on-time high school graduations each year – with a 16 percentage point gain in Black student graduation between 2014 and 2018.

Success Factors

Florida has 3 out of 10.

Leadership

There must be a vision for what a state wants to achieve, from governors or other key policy makers.

Policy

Leadership vision must be backed by a clear policy agenda, based on evidence, that is adopted and implemented.

Supports

As policy is being implemented, aligned supports – including funding – are provided to increase the chances for success.

Strategic Alignment

Intentional coordination is made across policy and funding to better connect work in Early childhood, K-12, Postsecondary, and Workforce.

Stakeholder Engagement

Efforts to improve student success are backed by stakeholders with a vested interest in improved outcomes (parents, students, the business community, advocates, philanthropies).

Sustained Commitment

Improving access to opportunity for all young people requires efforts to be sustained, often over many years and across political administrations.

The wins

Florida is a national leader in improving math and reading proficiency and graduation rates. Among the country’s four most populous states, Florida has the highest overall reading proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Students have improved substantially since 2011. Florida’s fourth-grade Hispanic students had the highest reading proficiency rate on the 2019 NAEP at 34% across all 50 states.

Highlights from 2011 to 2019

  • About 22,000 additional fourth-grade students attained math proficiency in 2019 than in 2011 (+10 percentage points). 
  • Sixth-largest improvement among the 50 states in eighth-grade reading (+4 points). 
  • Eighth-largest improvement in eighth-grade math (+3 points). 

Recent gains in high school graduation rates are also consistent with long-term improvements in core subject-matter proficiency. 

Gains between 2014 and 2018

  • The equivalent of 23,000 additional on-time graduations each year.
  • Overall graduation rate rises from 76% to 86%. 
  • Black students’ graduation rate increases by 16 percentage points. 
  • Hispanic students’ graduation rate increases by 10 percentage points.

How It happens

Leadership in the early 2000s in Florida translated into specific policy commitments – and student results. State leaders maintained support for these policies, which in turn built sustained commitment to student outcomes.

Leadership

Governor Jeb Bush’s term (1999-2007) focused largely on school accountability through measuring student performance and grading schools as well as parental choice in education through expansion of public charter schools and private educational choice.

Policy

In 1999, the Florida legislature approved the A+ Plan for Education, which required that students be tested annually, set A-F letter grades for the state’s schools, provided financial rewards to schools that improved student performance, and allowed students in persistently low-performing schools to transfer to higher-performing public schools or attend the private school of their choice. Governor Bush also pushed for increased literacy measures in schools before students enter third grade.

Sustained Commitment

Governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott, who followed Governor Bush, maintained a commitment to these policies. As a result, Florida’s fourth-grade reading NAEP proficiency rates rose steadily: by 10 points from 2002 to 2007, then by another 4 points by 2017. The eighth-grade NAEP reading scores also rose 3 points from 2002 to 2009, then another 3 points from 2009 to 2017.

Why it matters

The importance of improving reading proficiency and graduation rates among Black and Hispanic/Latino students cannot be overstated. These gains reflect significant progress in the state’s commitment to closing equity and opportunity gaps. Research indicates that if students are on track in reading by third grade, they are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and go on to enter college.

What to watch

There is still a significant gap between the overall NAEP proficiency rates and the proficiency rates for Black students. For example, even though Florida had the fifth-highest proficiency rate for fourth-grade Black students, it remained at 23%, 15 percentage points below the overall rate of 38%.