The Monroe County School District has officially fallen from an A-rating to a B in the most recent district grades, which include state assessment results from elementary through high schools levels.
The grade was posted on July 26, but all school districts had until Aug. 30 to appeal the findings.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter on Thursday conceded that the district had no plans to contest the B-rating, which was also accompanied by a drop in the district's overall state ranking from ninth to 14th.
"While we certainly have issues and concerns regarding the school grading formula, I have no reason to believe it was misapplied to the data of the Monroe County schools," Porter said.
The B grade was arrived at using an 800 basis point scale. Under this formula, Monroe County received a 504 out of 800. An A grade would have represented a score of 525 or higher.
The grade brings to an end a seven-year string of A grades stretching back to 2006. However, Monroe is not the only school district likely to be dissatisfied by this year's grading -- and the system that produced them.
In 2012, there were 16 A- and 22 B-rated districts in the state. This year, those numbers dropped to 7 A- and 16 B-ratings.
"I think by far the most single and obvious reason for this is the rising standards," Porter said. "I think our schools overall continue to demonstrate growth and improvement, but the reality is the expectations have risen faster. The formula is so complex. I know that when our buildings (individual schools) look into and evaluate our data, they continue to note growth and improvement, but they're going to fall short of the standards."
School Board Chairman Andy Griffiths echoed Porter.
"The state is only looking at very few grade levels on very few core areas," Griffiths said. "When it comes to science, you've got kindergarten through 12th grade potentially taking science, but then the state only measures the assessment in the fifth and eighth grade. As far as writing goes, it's only fourth, eighth and 10th grade that count. And there's a disproportionate emphasis on students in the bottom quartile for the calculations of the school grade."
Both Porter and Griffiths suggested that there could be better ways of measuring success on a local level.
"Obviously, when they raised the bar, grades and scores are going to go down," Griffiths said. "It looks like as they adjust the grade, our scores and our rankings may stay the same, even though a letter grade drops. What we need to do as a board is come up with a local matrix for success. You don't want to discredit the assessment system, because you need to know how the kids are doing. But when school grades came on the scene in 1999, the purpose of a diagnostic was so that schools could improve. It was not meant to label schools."
Porter's view was much the same.
"I think the approach is actually at the building level, because each building is going to have a unique data set to respond to," he said. "They may have fallen short of expectations based on a certain subgroup's performance, in which case that tells them how their resources have to be aligned and allocated. It's not a single, one-size-fits-all solution. It's a matter of each building identifying their needs. Our role at the district level is to support them in addressing and meeting those needs."
Porter said he already has plans to deal with the issues underlying the grade drop.
"I think we're already working very hard at identifying what those challenges and solutions are," he said. "I will be meeting individually with every principal to review their School Improvement Plans, and those are really the guiding documents to identify where they fell short of expectations and how they're going to fix it.
"We know that buildings can make significant improvements to address a grade drop," Porter went on. "We saw it happen at Switlik. They dropped, but then the next year they were able to focus their resources and restore the A grade."
While insisting that he wasn't ducking responsibility for his district's performance, Porter maintained that the devil in the grade drop may lie in the details.
"The formula has been tweaked and adjusted repeatedly, so that one year's grade is not an apples-to-apples comparison to the next year's grade," he said. "None of which should be construed as an excuse. We welcome high standards and high expectations, but in terms of the single most significant factor in this drop, from an A to a B, it would be rising expectation."
Key West education advocate John Padget also expressed a mix of disappointment and optimism regarding the development.
"Being on the state Board of Education, it's a personal disappointment to me that my home county of Monroe dropped from an A and ninth place to a B, 14th place, in the state rankings," said Padget, who serves as the vice chair of the Florida State Board of Education. "Florida is raising the bar for education standards. It went up in 2013 and it will go up further in 2014. Some of Monroe's schools thrived even with the higher standards, but some did not. I'm confident that with all schools taking the challenge seriously, Monroe will get back to an A."