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Not apples to apples

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Utah released school grades this week, but at least one member of their state board remains firmly opposed. Tami Pyfer, District 1 Utah State Board of Education wrote:

How does Utah compare to Florida a decade after Florida’s bold and expensive reform measures began? This table shows the comparison between Florida and Utah student outcomes and, surprisingly, despite the massive amount of resources invested in their reform efforts, along with the implementation of school grading, Florida trails Utah in all of these outcome measures save one: Florida’s 4th grade NAEP reading scores are higher than Utah’s, reflecting Florida’s reform-driven policy of retaining all 3rd graders who were not reading on grade level by the end of third grade. (Non-proficient 3rd graders are not promoted to 4th grade and, subsequently, 4th grade reading scores increase.)

Outcome Florida Utah
Graduation Rate 70.8 78.6
ACT Scores2 19.6 20.7
NAEP3 8th Grade Math 278 283
NAEP 4th Grade Math 240 243
NAEP 8th Grade Reading 262 267
NAEP 4th Grade Reading 225 220

Pyfer would serve her readers better with an apple to apple comparison. Utah has far fewer children who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program than Florida for instance. American schools also continue to struggle with racial achievement gaps, and while Utah is majority Anglo the Florida student population is majority minority. It would be shocking indeed if Pyfer couldn’t find some statistics where Utah outshines Florida, but it hardly means that Utah can’t benefit from school grading.

Florida’s student demographics have become more challenging over time, but student achievement has substantially improved. A recent study by scholars at Stanford, Harvard and the University of Munich found that Florida had the smallest overall increase in spending per pupil since the early 1990s but the second to largest overall gains on the highly respected NAEP exam:

money isn't answer

This is especially relevant to Utah’s situation given the fact that the large average family size is likely to keep Utah’s spending per pupil figure relatively modest (at least when compared to other states although not necessarily in comparison to past Utah spending).

It is unfortunate to see some in Utah react to A-F school grades as some kind of attack on public education when in fact it is an improvement strategy that has been successfully used in other states to strengthen public school performance.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.