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Florida's education legacy: Iowans beware

December 5, 2011
Shelly Counsell
Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
December 4, 2011

In a campaign to convince states to adopt Florida's education policies purported to improve academic achievement, Gov. Terry Branstad's "blueprint" for education reform is one more example of how politicians use biased research to drive state policy.

The Heritage Report, "Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: Learning from Florida's Reforms" (2010) for example, compares national average test scores of students versus Florida. Since low-scoring readers (mostly black and Hispanic) are screened out of grade 4 tests, the fourth-grade reading scores are inflated and erroneous, making racial achievement gaps narrower (Chatterji, 2010). Lead author Matthew Ladner fails to examine test score data on all subjects and grade levels, relying exclusively on fourth-grade reading to best support his claims and make sweeping generalizations.

Making similar research claims in a dozen reports, Ladner has marketed his biased research to elected officials in at least seven different states (Welner, 2010). As senior adviser to the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a conservative think-tank), Ladner attended the Iowa Education Summit to influence Iowa state policy.

In 2002-03, Florida's Third-Grade Retention Mandate meant that 33,000 out of 188,107 third-graders scored below the Level 2 requirement needed for promotion. In Florida, third-graders can be retained up to three consecutive years. Linda Fandel (special assistant for education in Branstad's office) insists, "Florida has had a huge amount of success with the third-grade literacy policy." While the percentage of third-graders have declined, thousands continue to be retained annually. Since 1999, more than 1 million Florida children have endured in-grade retention at some point in their public school experience. Approximately 2 million U.S. students (5-10 percent) are retained annually at an estimated cost of more than $14 billion per year for the extra year of schooling. Branstad wants Iowa schools to be "world-class," yet Japan, Norway, Denmark and Sweden reported 0 percent retention in 2000 while Finland reported a less than 1 percent retention rate suggesting that retention is not embraced as a "world-class" educational practice.

More than 75 years of retention research has failed to prove academic advantages for retained students. Gains documented the first year after retention are generally small and diminish within three years. Retained students statistically experience lower school attendance, more discipline problems and are significantly more likely to drop out. Yet, Branstad asserts that his plan (including third-grade retention) will boost achievement and raise graduation rates.

As a native Iowan, parent and former Florida public school teacher, my dissertation at UNI examined the unforeseen consequences of Florida's high-stakes testing at the third-grade level and revealed a "culture of fear" experienced by children, parents, teachers and administrators. According to 143 third-graders' written narratives, 78 percent expressed fear toward taking the FCAT and/or retention across gender, race, income and reading performance. During my study, one third-grader was sent home after vomiting on her test and another had to retake the test due to migraines and nausea. Every year, states and cities with retention mandates report having inadmissible tests because children have vomited on them.

Fandel assures Iowans, "they're not trying to be punitive - they're trying to make sure children learn how to read."

"Good intentions" do not dismiss policymakers' accountability for policies that result in psychological harm to children. The National Association of School Psychologists warn, "this kind of failure" can lead to "long-term anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, etc." negatively impacting learning and motivation. Fandel further declares, "What they put in place was a lot of great instructional strategies." Many Florida schools have adopted a policy of no outdoor recess for third-graders. Instead, students spend 30 minutes everyday completing Successmaker reading and math skill-drill computer activities designed to increase FCAT scores. Instilling fear and minimizing learning to rote memorization is not a quality experience and may stifle our future artisans, inventors and visionaries.

Education publishing giants like McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin and Pearson actively lobby for state accountability legislation. Pearson has secured multiple FCAT contracts since 2000, including the Next Generation FCAT contract ending in 2013 with a potential value of $254.1 million ( retrieved August 11, 2009) and marketed various educational programs (such as SuccessMaker). This testing market has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars for Pearson in Florida, not to mention millions earned from assessment contracts in other states. This is how state legislation and policy creates lucrative markets for testing companies. Branstad's extensive testing program would cost Iowa taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Frequent standardized testing does not increase learning and educational quality. Investing in professional development, curriculum research, materials and technology at the classroom level do - as demonstrated by world-class education programs.