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No more Flori-duh. State’s fourth-grade readers go from bottom of the nation to top of the world

• Mike Thomas

Kids in Singapore and Finland have long distinguished themselves on international academic tests, leaving American kids far, far, far behind.

They would rule the 21st Century while our kids would assemble snow globes, sew sneakers, man the call centers and figure out how to pay their parents’ entitlements on 93 cents a day.

If things weren’t bad enough, now we have the results of international fourth grade reading assessments. And not only were the usual suspects at the top of the list, we have a new nation to rub its superiority in our face, a nation that bested even Singapore and Finland.

The kids there not only significantly outperformed American kids, they had almost triple the percent of students reading at an advanced level when compared to the international average.

That country is: The People’s Sovereign State of Sunshine.

Or as we locals call it: Florida.

Yes, while other states talk about seceding from the union, we actually did it, at least for purposes of PIRLS – the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

The people at PIRLS administer a very comprehensive reading test to fourth graders in 53 international education systems, most of them nations like Singapore, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Denmark and so on. There are a few pieces of nations included, like Hong Kong and Florida, which asked to be entered on its own, a very risky move considering that if it backfired, we would be wearing a global dunce cap.

Here is a quick synopsis of the test: “PIRLS assesses students’ reading literacy in four cognitive areas, called ‘processes of comprehension’: focus on and retrieve explicitly stated information; make straightforward inferences; interpret and integrate ideas and information; and examine and evaluate content, language, and textual elements.”

All of which is proof we should only let fourth graders vote in Florida when there are amendments on the ballot. It might speed things along.

As an independent nation, Florida kids were bested only by Hong Kong.

This is despite the fact that 56 percent of Florida students are low-income and 57 percent are minority, both higher than the national average.

The sample of kids from the rest of America included those attending private schools, while the sample from Florida consisted entirely of public school kids.

Despite that, it was a clean sweep.

Our white kids did better, black kids did better, Hispanic kids did better, Asian kids did better and poor kids did better. Our girls did better and our boys did better.

Twenty-two percent of Florida kids read at an advanced level compared to 17 percent in the rest of America and 8 percent in the rest of the world.

Florida has gone from one of the worst reading states in the nation to one of the top reading nations in the world.

And just last month I read a story about Jeb Bush’s education reforms in Reuters, which concluded: “But a close examination raises questions about the depth and durability of the (education) gains in Florida.’’

Think we’ll see a follow-up?

These scores are a direct result of education reforms begun in 1999, targeting the most important indicator of academic success: early childhood literacy.

It also is a strong indicator that despite whining from unions and parents’ groups, the FCAT is a very good tool to measure actual learning gains.

We now need to begin focusing as much attention on science and math, where international tests show our fourth graders are only equal to the rest of the United States, despite a decided demographic disadvantage.

Still, we are ahead of nations like Germany, Italy, and Sweden in these subjects.

I also should point out that a recently released study out of Harvard predicted this. In measuring academic gains made by Florida students on the National Assessment of Education Progress, it noted that America would be far more competitive internationally if all students were progressing at the rate of Florida students.

The proof, as always, is in the data.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at