TAMPA, Fla. — During a news conference to sign several controversial new education measures into law earlier this month, Florida's top politicians and education leaders all used the moment to praise the state's latest distinction.
"When you're ranked No. 1 by US News & World Report like we were," a giddy Gov. Ron DeSantis said on stage.
"We're No. 1 in education overall," echoed Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Renner.
"Florida is No. 1 in education according to U.S. News & World Report," Florida Education Commissioner and former Florida Senator Manny Diaz told the cheering crowd of supporters during the news conference in Miami-Dade County.
For the seventh year in a row, U.S. News & World Report dubbed the Sunshine State No. 1 overall in education and No. 1 for higher education.
"Hey guys, how about that? Seven years in a row," Brian Lamb, chairman of Florida's Board of Governors, said during a Zoom meeting with fellow members the following day. The Board of Governors serves as the oversight board for the state's public university system.
"It's a testament to our trajectory and the work that we're doing," he said. "It's working."
But a closer look at the details behind these rankings had us wondering what it all really means. Is Florida's No. 1 education title really an indication that students are getting the best of it here?
"You got a positive Yelp review. That's, in essence, what you just got," explained Akil Bello, director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. The group advocates against the misuse of standardized testing.
But for years, Bello has also been a vocal critic of the U.S. News & World Report ranking systems. On Twitter last year, he called the rankings "terrible and wrong."
"They are using subjective analysis, filtering it through numbers and pretending it's objective," he explained. "That conveys to parents to families to shoppers, essentially, false information. They're using metrics that no one would actually want to measure if you were looking at education."
According to its website, U.S. News' education rankings are measured using a limited number of metrics that include graduation rates, cost of tuition, debt at graduation and the number of residents in each state who hold a college degree.
"Are you going to choose a college based on the number of people with associate degrees or better that live in the community around it? What does that have to do with the college itself?" asked Bello, who also said graduation rates are more reflective of money than any academic excellence achieved by a student.
"Most of the people who end up not graduating are because they didn't have the funding to continue," he said. "So unless you disaggregate those who academically didn't graduate from those who financially couldn't graduate, you’re not actually saying anything."
"The U.S. News & World Report rankings are pretty narrowly focused," Andrew Spar, head of Florida's largest teachers' union, agreed.
But Spar isn't writing off the rankings, which also deemed Florida's Pre-K through 12 education system No. 14 nationally.
While that measurement was also limited to metrics like graduation rates, it also included test scores from some 8th-grade exams along with results from college readiness exams, including the SAT and ACT.
"I wouldn't say I don't take it seriously. I take it for what it is," Spar explained when asked about criticisms about the rankings.
In a press release shortly after the rankings were made public, Florida's Department of Education described its methodology as measuring "the overall quality of each state's education system"
"The Florida education model stands alone as a shining example for all other states to follow," Diaz said.
But if these rankings speak to the quality of education students get in Florida, Bello advises you may want to look somewhere else.
"Basically, somebody just called Florida pretty," he said. "One of the problems with politicians endorsing these rankings is that they're misleading the public. They're suggesting that these rankings are providing real information about the quality of education when in truth they're not."
In response to questions about its methodology and metrics, a spokesperson from U.S. News & World Report sent us the following statement:
Florida, the No. 1 state overall in the education category, ranks in the top half of states on eight of 10 education metrics. It is also No. 1 in higher education, particularly excelling in the tuition and fees metric and in metrics assessing college graduation rates. The state excels in the tuition and fees metric of the higher education subcategory and in metrics assessing college graduation rates, but ranks in the top 10 for only one pre-K-12 metric: high school graduation rate.
To ensure the Best States rankings are objective and fair, U.S. News designed the initial framework in consultation with a third party. U.S. News also weighted the eight major categories based on results from representative surveys designed to determine which factors Americans believe their home states should prioritize.
Within each category, the initial metrics were selected objectively in collaboration with experts, using specific criteria. Among these considerations were the comprehensiveness, reliability and timeliness of the data reflected by each metric, criteria that continue to inform the project with each release. The project uses publicly available government data when possible and proprietary data in cases where public data was not available.