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Time to compare Florida school districts

As a group, low-income students struggle more than their wealthier peers. But in Florida, poor kids in some districts do a lot better than poor kids in others.

In Seminole County, for example, 56 percent of third graders eligible for free- and reduced-price scored at grade level or above on this year’s FCAT reading test, according to new state Department of Education data. In Duval County, meanwhile, 39 percent did. Among the state’s biggest districts, Seminole has one of the lowest rates of low-income kids. But so does Duval. And the low-income kids in Miami-Dade, which has the highest rate (nearly 20 percentage points higher than Duval), easily outpaced their counterparts in Duval. They did so in every tested grade, by an average of nine percentage points.

So what gives?

I’m not sure. But I think it’s worth a closer look.

We compare schools to each other so we can learn from those that make more progress. Ditto for states. Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report puts states side by side. It’s thoughtful and useful. It’s time for a similar spotlight on Florida school districts, which include some of the nation’s largest urban districts and an average enrollment among the top 10 of 165,000 students. Anybody could take the lead in setting that up – the press, parent groups, researchers, lawmakers, state education officials, maybe even the districts themselves.

Even with state mandates, districts have considerable leeway. Taking a closer look at achievement data district by district would spark more discussion about which ones are employing policies and programs that make the biggest difference for kids. The variation is endless. Some districts put more disability labels on minority students. Some put a premium on career academies. Some focus on principal development. Some have stronger superintendents. Some face more competition from charter schools and tax credit scholarships. How do things like that factor into district-to-district gaps? I’m sure it’s difficult to sort one from another, and impossible to draw definitive conclusions. But we won’t develop better hunches without looking at the data and talking about it.

A deeper dive into FCAT scores is one place to start. Most of the data I’m referring to is posted every year by the DOE, a few months after FCAT scores are released in late spring and early summer. It’s fascinating stuff – a breakdown of scores by district, subject, grade, FCAT level – and by all kinds of subgroups. I’ve talked to enough bona fide researchers about these numbers to know they raise fascinating questions.

Take Duval again.

Of the eight grades tested in reading, low-income students in the Duval school district, which encompasses the city of Jacksonville, finished last in four grades and next to last in three others compared to low-income students in the other big districts.

Could that have something to do with the concentration of poor kids? The districts whose low-income students finished either first or second in just about every grade – Brevard and Seminole – had the lowest percentage of low-income students, at 44 and 45 percent, respectively. But the district with the third lowest percentage, at 53 percent, was Duval. If academic results faithfully tracked poverty rates, Duval would rank third among the big 12 districts in overall results (again, behind Seminole and Brevard). Instead, in reading, it ranked next to last in six of eight grades.

On the flip side, some districts seem to outperform their demographics. No big district can match Miami-Dade in reading gains, but others should draw attention for their results. Lee County has the third-highest rate of low-income students among the big districts, at 64 percent, and over the past decade, no big district has seen a bigger increase (86 percent, compared to 26 percent for Duval). Yet in reading this year, Lee students overall ranked in the top four in six of eight grades.

Again, I’m not sure why some districts seem to perform better than others, despite what seem to be bigger challenges. I think it’s complicated. But I also think it’s time for parents and the public to see more. My hunch is they’ll ask good questions – and we’ll all be the better for it.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at