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Schools 5th - but what does it mean?

When Florida’s public education system was named fifth-best in the nation this week, educators and elected officials rejoiced.

They heralded the announcement as proof that Florida’s education reforms are working.

Said state Education Commissioner Eric Smith: “This fifth-place ranking reflects the continuing success of that effort and the incredible work of our dedicated teachers.”

But what do the rankings, doled out annually by the magazine Education Week, really tell us about the state of education in Florida?

It’s actually a mixed bag.

Florida scored points for its standards, tests and school grading system, long considered among the best in the nation.

But the Sunshine State ranked near the bottom nationally for its graduation rate.

It also got failing marks when it came to state funding for public schools.

As for student performance, Florida’s middle-schoolers ranked 35th in math and 30th in reading.

Students did, however, improve their scores over the past five years and Florida reaped the benefits in the rankings.

Jack Jennings, founder of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., called the designation meaningful for Florida.

“The state has laid the groundwork for a good education system,” Jennings said. “But if anyone thinks that Florida ought to be, they are mistaken.”

Each January, Education Week publishes Quality Counts, a study that evaluates each state’s education system and ranks them.

The study considers a variety of factors, everything from teacher training to pre-Kindergarten enrollment to student achievement on college-level tests.

Florida has made a meteoric rise, from 31st in 2007 to fifth this year.

One caveat: The magazine adjusts the ranking formula each year.

This year, Florida earned a respectable B-, and was bested only by Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Virginia.

Not bad for a state that isn’t exactly known for its strong public schools.

Of course, the Education Week study is just one way to compare Florida’s schools with those in other states.

You also could consider the magazine’s annual Diplomas Count study, which ranks states by their graduation rates. In 2010, Florida came in a lowly 44th in the nation.

You also could look at the Nation’s Report Card, which is based only on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In the most recent report, Florida’s 12th-graders underperformed the nation in both math and reading.

The states also are ranked annually by how much they spend on education, a measure that puts Florida close to the bottom. Florida spends $9,035 per kid, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures. Compare that with the $17,173 spent in New York.

But in most education circles, Quality Counts, well, counts.

“It’s a sophisticated analysis of states,” said Jennings, of the Center on Education Policy. “They are considered pretty accurate.”

Local educators have different theories about what drove the Sunshine State’s success this year.

Some reformers point to 10 years of the A+ Plan, the comprehensive school accountability system put in place under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Others say it is the shrinking student-teacher ratio, a statewide priority since 2002.

“Maybe there really is something to class size,” said United Teachers of Dade First Vice President Artie Leichner.

But all agree Florida still has a long way to go.

“Once you examine each individual criterion, there is still significant work to be done,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.

The same can be said for every other state in the union. No state scored better than an overall B+. The average grade awarded was a C.

The bottom three performers: South Dakota, the District of Columbia and Nebraska.

This month’s release of the scores comes at a pivotal moment in Florida.

Newly minted Gov. Rick Scott is proposing sweeping changes to education policy, including a voucher-like program that would let parents choose which school their children attend.

“I’m not satisfied with fifth place,” Scott told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce earlier this week. “That’s because we all know there are things we can do better.”

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