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Florida’s widening student proficiency gap, and what we can do about it

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

Children are not all the same, nor are they equally ready upon graduation for the challenges of college or the modern workforce.

A new report by the bipartisan Foundation for Excellence in Education found Florida is currently suffering from what education experts call a “proficiency gap,” where Sunshine State students are increasingly falling behind.

Started in 1999 by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the Foundation believes every child has the ability to learn and achieve success. To provide an equal opportunity for children to reach their highest potential, the advocacy group believes Florida’s education system must ensure every child masters these important skills.

The report, released Monday, offers some sobering numbers: only 19 percent of 2014 ACT-tested high school graduates were college-ready in four key targets — English, Reading, Math, and Science.

According to the nonprofit Complete College America, half of all students entering two-year colleges need some form of remedial skills, with mounting expense. Nearly $7 billion is spent every year for first-year college students to learn what they should have learned in high school.

In Florida, 65,000 freshmen entering two-year colleges require remediation, costing those who earn a bachelor’s degree up to $65,596 for each additional year they don’t graduate on time (broken down to $20,269 for attendance and $45,327 in lost wages).

Graduating seniors unprepared for the working world, as well as spending more time getting up to speed, has a long-lasting effect on the American economy. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates 600,000 American manufacturing jobs are currently vacant due to the lack of qualified applicants. That number of unfilled jobs is expected to grow to 2 million within the next decade.

Excellence in Education says one way to close this proficiency gap is through accurate assessments: honest, objective yardsticks to measure student learning and competence – mastery of the subject matter being taught.

Every state has what is known as a “proficiency cut score,” an annual assessment, varying from state to state, that determines student proficiency in a particular subject. When cut scores are too low, parents, teachers and educators get an inaccurate idea of student success.

One benchmark for measuring student proficiency, considered by educators to be the gold standard, is by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), producer of the Nation’s Report Card. Proficiency gaps are the difference between the NAEP and expectations of the individual states. States with large gaps have set the bar too low, leading parents and teachers to believe students are performing better than they actually are.

For Florida, the proficiency gap between expectations and NAEP averages 20 points. For example, the state’s 4th graders have a 21-point gap in reading, and 20 points in math, placing Florida 18th out of the 50 states. With eighth graders, the gap in reading is 23 points.

While closing such a large proficiency gap may sound difficult, the Foundation says there is a solution. And the answer starts with parents.

That is why the group is providing Florida families with a new online tool – called “Why Proficiency Matters” — to help demonstrate what proficiency means and how important it is to the future success of their children.

However, understating the gap is only the first step.

Florida, along with every state, is in the process of reviewing proficiency cut scores.

That is why the Foundation says now is the ideal time for parents to start contacting school leaders, education officials, and local representatives to raise awareness of this ability gap and the need for more accurate assessments.

The online tool and information for parents on what they can do to help close the looming proficiency gap are available at WhyProficiencyMatters.com.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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