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From Bad to Worse: Flagler and Florida Students Near Bottom in National ACT Scores

| August 17, 2011

act scores flagler schools

Little to be proud of. (© FlaglerLive)

When Flagler County students are ranked against their fellow-students from other Florida counties, they do relatively well. They come from an A-rated school district, after all, even though that rating has lost its value as almost half the districts in the state, playing to the system that hands it down, now manage to get it. So Flagler school officials regularly pat themselves on the back for having one of the best school districts in the state. They did so again at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

But when Flagler County students are ranked against fellow-students in the nation as a whole, they do dismally, as do Florida students: the state ranks at or near the bottom in academic achievement, graduation rates and college entrance. On the STA last year, Florida scores were in the lowest quartile in all three disciplines–reading, math and writing. In Math, students in just five states did worse than Florida’s.

On the ACT, also a college-entrance exam, the scores were much worse last year. They’re just as bad this year, except in Flagler, where they worsened on last year’s scores.

Florida’s composite scores for the 117,575 students who took the test rank the state dead last, with two exceptions: Tennessee and Mississippi. Florida’s score is a slight improvement over last year, but still below 2007 and 2008, suggesting that the state’s emphasis on higher standards is not having an effect beyond the state’s own testing criteria.

For the 389 Flagler County students who took the ACT, their composite score of 18.8 is only one decimal point above that of Mississippi’s, and eight decimal points below the state average. It is the third successive and significant drop in ACT scores in Flagler.

On every score, however, Matanzas High School students fared better than students at Flagler Palm Coast High School–including by a significant margin in composite scores: Matanzas scored a combined 19.5, just one decimal point shy of the state average (but still a long distance from the national average) compared to FPC’s 18.2, which is well below Mississippi’s.

The disparity between Florida-centered tests such as the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) and national tests is similar to the disparity between Florida standards and federal standards that apply to individual schools. When set against Florida standards, most schools (including all but one charter school in Flagler County) score well, hence the A rating. When set against federal Adequate Yearly Progress regulations, most schools fail.

The disparity would have been just a matter of accounting: school officials across the country have been complaining for years about the innumerable and intractable requirements of AYP, as the dreaded adequate yearly progress standards have come to be known. But for Florida–and Flagler–the disparity in national scores goes beyond accounting: it’s a direct reflection of students’ abilities, compared to their peers.

Yet while FCAT scores still draw plenty of attention, energy and resources in local schools–since money depends on the results, including, now, merit pay for teachers– ACT and SAT results seldom do: the tests are not considered to have high stakes, even though they are a more objective reflection of the quality of teaching and the resulting quality of students in the district, when compared to students outside Florida’s education fishbowl.

Students take the ACT to qualify for Bright Futures scholarships and to satisfy college entrance requirements, Jim Devine, the school district’s testing coordinator, said. Some students take the ACT to meet requirements of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, especially in reading: A score of 15 on the ACT satisfies Florida graduation requirements in reading.

When the ACT scores are further broken down, other worrisome trends appear: the 84 black students who took the test scored a combined average of 16.5, compared to whites scoring 20. Hispanics scored 17.9, and Asians 19.3.

On the ACT, students are tested in English, math, reading and science. Here’s a breakdown of the scores in each category in the nation, in Florida, in the district and in each of the district’s two high schools:

2011 ACT Scores

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15 Responses for “From Bad to Worse: Flagler and Florida Students Near Bottom in National ACT Scores”

  1. Thinkforyourself says:

    The headline should be “The state of Florida uses the ACT as a measure of last resort”. Florida schools are reliant on the FCAT as a requirement for graduation. If a student fails the FCAT he or she then has the opportunity of taking the ACT. A passing score on the ACT will allow a student to graduate. So most students taking the ACT have already failed the FCAT sometimes up to three times and are taking the ACT as a last resort to graduate. So naturally, the majority of the students taking the ACT in Flagler are students who have already failed the FCAT. Unfortunately, the number and academic quality of the students taking the ACT have diminished over the years because schools in Florida do not give it the same value and focus that other state do. Therefore, measuring and comparing to other states who appropriately use the ACT is really not a reflection of reality and a poor measure of academic success in the state.

  2. Tom Brown says:

    This raises the question of why Florida even uses state-written exams to begin with. National tests would give students, parents and teachers a more trustworthy measurement.

  3. Jim Guines says:

    As long as Florida allows students to use ACT scores to pass for FCAT you will see this problem yearly. It only takes a score of 15 to meet the FCAT requirement in reading, Frankly, as far as I am concerned, it is one more misuse of tests.

  4. IML8 says:

    Exactly what I was thinking….the scores are so low because the kids who normally would never even take the ACT are attempting it to satisfy the FCAT requirement. I even felt a bit bad because my guy is one of those kids and his low score had an impact on FPC’s lower ACT scores.

  5. Liana G says:

    …”Yet while FCAT scores still draw plenty of attention, energy and resources in local schools–since money depends on the results, including, now, merit pay for teachers– ACT and SAT results seldom do: the tests are not considered to have high stakes, even though they are a more objective reflection of the quality of teaching and the resulting quality of students in the district, when compared to students outside Florida’s education fishbowl.”…

    Exactly, FCAT is given from 3rd grade and onwards and the results tied to money – reason enough for things to happen, whereas ACT and SAT are given in the 12th grade with no monetary incentives. At this stage playing catch-up is completely futile which is one of the reason schools use harsh zero tolerance punishment to push out underachieving students, and to assist others into transitioning out before the graduation period so they don’t negatively impact their graduation rate which is tied to an ‘A’ ranking.

    Until recently, our state standards (FCAT) were among the lowest in the nation in order to show/maintain gains so as to continue to receive and secure funding under NCLB mandates. Even with this, our students were doing terrible. Now along comes Race to the Top which promises states additional funding for signing on to a new Common Core Standards, a national curriculum with challenging academic standards. Florida is one of the states to sign on so we can expect to see either high erasure marks (let’s hope there will be a system in place to prevent this) or really bad scores. It will be very interesting to see how this district does with reduce school hours and less teachers. Brilliant Move! M&Ms all around!

    More worrisome though is the PISA and NAEP ranking

    …”The US ranked 32nd [in math] out of 65 countries (or cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong) that participated in the latest international PISA, an exam administered to representative samples of 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

    In the top-scoring places, such as Shanghai, Korea, and Finland, well over 50 percent of students were proficient in math. The proficiency rate in Massachusetts on PISA was 51 percent. [The best performing state]

    The US, with 31 percent of students proficient in reading, ranks 17th. Again, Massachusetts, with 43 percent proficient, is the best-performing state, ranking behind only Shanghai, Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong.

    When looking at the performance of only the white students in the US, for instance, the full samples of students in 16 countries still did better. And US students who have at least one parent with a college degree were outperformed by 13 countries.”…

  6. Jim Guines says:

    Liana G. you need to go down to the school administration and help the department that works with test data. I seem to get more out of your analysis than I get from the school system’s statements about the “why’s” of test results.

  7. Thinkforyourself says:

    Liana G. could you please provide the source for this statement “Until recently, our state standards (FCAT) were among the lowest in the nation in order to show/maintain gains so as to continue to receive and secure funding under NCLB mandates.” The fact is that the state standard for the FCAT are the highest, not the lowest and far surpass many other state assessments. That’s why you will see Standards & Poors rate the Mississippi and Alabama Schools high achieving when a large number of their schools make AYP. 83% of Florida’s schools did not made AYP compared to about 23% in those states. Why – because the accountability is higher in Florida. What one state calls proficient is different than another so it becomes difficult to compare apples to apples. In looking at the NAEP – a national assessment our 4th graders blow theirs away. In regards to international testing – it’s really important to look at the whole picture. A recent study was done that clearly defines that when poverty is taken into account the US is very competitive. The US tests all students many other countries do not. Therefore the data becomes very tricky to interpret. I will try to find the link to the PISA study in regards to poverty.

  8. Alex says:

    When students do good teachers receive “merit pay” increase compensation. When students do poorly, do teacher receive decrease in compensation? For an incentive system to work properly the compensation should move up and down according to the result.

  9. Thinkforyourself says:

    Here is the link to the PISA study: It’s Poverty, not stupid!

  10. Liana G says:


    From FairTest.Org

    “All children can learn to high levels.

    Yes, most children can, but NCLB works against high-level learning. To be successful, students need skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, communication and collaboration. Good teachers assess these high-level skills and help guide school improvement. Good teachers also know how to teach students who have different backgrounds and learn in different ways. NCLB does not prescribe such strategies. Instead, it relies on standardized tests that measure mainly low-level thinking in a one-size-fits-all format. Pressure to boost scores leads to teaching to the tests, thereby reducing the quality of learning….

    NCLB is improving schools and achievement.

    Since NCLB was implemented, the rate of improvement in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has slowed, even though more time is spent on those two subjects and less in other areas. Grade 8 NAEP reading scores have not risen at all. Test prep has artificially inflated scores on state exams. Accountability pressures have led to cheating, falsified graduation rates, and pushing kids out of school. The evidence says that test-based accountability undermines the quality of education, especially for our most needy students, even if NCLB defenders can point to isolated cases of apparent improvement. Moreover, NCLB policies actually cut money available to schools that need improvement.

    …”Adjusting cut scores and test difficulty creates a false picture of progress. Rather than engage in practices that produce real student learning, officials can make tests easier or lower the required passing score. This misleads the public. New York City Mayor Bloomberg trumpeted soaring test results until an independent review in 2010 showed the exams’ difficulty level had been lowered over time.

    Districts or schools can manipulate the pool of tested students for optimal results. Students can be forced to repeat a grade because those who are held back generally score higher the second time around (even though retention hurts students in the long run). They can be classified as having severe special needs so they are not tested with their peers. Suspending or expelling low-scoring students means their scores won’t lower the school’s average. Encouraging them to leave school makes that solution a permanent one, even though many youth who are pushed out end up unemployed or in prison.”…

  11. Liana G says:

    Keeping an Eye on State Standards: see

    …”We are not evaluating state tests, nor are we grading states on the performance of their students. Instead, we are checking for “ truth in advertising, ” investigating whether the proficiency levels mean what they say. We are thus able to ascertain whether states lowered the bar for student proficiency as the full panoply of NCLB provisions took effect.

    When we conducted the first of our checkups on the rigor of the standards, we gave each state the same kind of grade students receive. Where the requisite information was available, states with the highest standards were given an A [5 states]; those with the lowest standards, an F [2 states]….Best of all, a handful of states continued to impress for a second consecutive year, grading their own performance on a particularly tough curve. Massachusetts, South Carolina, Wyoming, Maine, and Missouri all once again earned As….In addition, states with already low standards have done nothing to raise them. Oklahoma and Tennessee once again share the cream puff award, with both states earning Fs because their self-reported performance is much higher than can be justified by the NAEP results…Montana is the most improved state. Others that have significantly boosted their proficiency standards relative to the NAEP include Texas, Arkansas, and Wisconsin.”…

    Florida’s NAEP grade is a C. NAEP uses the same grading standards as PISA.


    “Johnny can’t read … in South Carolina. But if his folks move to Texas, he’ll be reading up a storm. What’s going on?

    It turns out that in complying with the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), some states have decided to be a whole lot more generous than others in determining whether students are proficient at math and reading. While NCLB required all states to have accountability systems in place, it did not say specifically how much students should know at the end of 4th or any other grade.

    Some states have risen to the challenge and set demanding proficiency levels for their students, while others have used lower standards to inflate reported performance.[…] Not only is the disparity confusing,but,…Because of such disparities, the states with the highest standards will be tempted to lower their threshold for determining proficiency, especially when NCLB teeth begin to bite. With the passage of time, states may be tempted to race to the bottom, lowering expectations to ever lower levels so that fewer schools are identified as failing, even when no gains are being made.

  12. Doug Chozianin says:

    Flagler County needs to elect a new school board and fire incompetent teachers (I estimate 10 to 20 percent of total staff).

    Remember Albert Einstein’s definition if insanity… doing the same thing over and over again (without changing any of the variables) and expecting different results.

  13. Liana G says:

    When test scores seem too good to believe
    By Greg Toppo, Denise Amos, Jack Gillum and Jodi Upton, USA TODAY Updated 3/17/2011

    …”The newspaper identified 1,610 examples of anomalies in which public school classes — a school’s entire fifth grade, for example — boasted what analysts regard as statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests.

    Such anomalies surfaced in Washington, D.C., and each of the states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio — where USA TODAY analyzed test scores. For each state, the newspaper obtained three to seven years’ worth of scores. There were another 317 examples of equally large, year-to-year declines in an entire grade’s scores….

    If big gains were followed by deep losses, Feinberg cautioned, you’d have to ask, “What were the adults doing that might not have been … ethical?”…

    Even when suspicious scores are investigated, it can be hard to identify a culprit unless someone confesses. [said] Ed Roeber, who headed Michigan’s testing program for nearly 20 years,…
    “It made me angry because you were cheating kids. You’re not finding out if they need help. You’re painting this picture that is incorrect.”…

  14. Christina Machado says:

    Some of the problem is the kids, some is the lifestyle and values that parents instill in them. Entitlement and lack of a work ethic allows these kids not to value education. My parents were LEGAL immigrants to this country, but they taught me that education was a privelege. It starts at home. The system, well, too many self interested adminstrators have their hands in the pot to fix that.

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