SEBRING - Florida's higher grading standards hit home at local school districts Friday with many schools getting a lower grade, according to the preliminary elementary and middle school accountability grades released by the Florida Department of Education.
The School Board of Highlands County did not escape the tougher grading curve, with seven of its nine elementary schools dropping a letter grade.
The district recorded its first "F" grade at Memorial Elementary, which was a "C" school two years ago and a "D" school last year.
In the face of the higher standards, Cracker Trail Elementary made a remarkable improvement from "C" to "A" and Sun 'n Lake Elementary did well to maintain its "B" grade.
All four middle schools dropped a letter grade, resulting in a "D" grade for both Avon Park and Lake Placid middle schools, a "C" for Hill-Gustat, which was an "A" school two years ago, and a "B" for Sebring Middle, ending its string of seven "A" grades. Sebring Middle missed an "A" this year by 1 point in the grade calculation.
Earlier this month, the State Board of Education took action to ensure stability and fairness in Florida's school grading system, according to the FDOE.
The state board approved Education Commissioner Tony Bennett's request to limit drops in school grades to one letter grade.
Four Highlands County elementary schools benefitted from grade drop rule - Avon, Lake Country, Lake Placid and Woodlawn.
According to the actual grade calculation, Avon and Woodlawn elementary schools would have received an "F" grade and both Lake Country and Lake Placid elementary schools could have received "C" grades.
Based on preliminary grades, statewide, the number of "A" schools dropped from 48 percent to 29 percent while the number of "F" schools increased from 2 percent to 4 percent, the FDOE reports.
In a press release, Superintendent Wally Cox said the calculation of school grades has been the subject of intense debate in recent years, but especially this year. Several years of changing standards have resulted in volatility in the grades and a statewide decrease this year in school grades.
Cox commended the students in their efforts to meet the higher standards. He also noted the "hard work" of the teachers, administrations and support staff.
"Principals and district staff will work together to make changes in the instructional strategies and programs where necessary," he said.
The elementary school grades are based on student performance and improvement on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Middle school grades are based on FCAT and end-of-course exam results.
Since 1999, Florida has issued letter grades to more clearly communicate the quality of schools to parents and the public. As performance improved, changes were made to the way grades were calculated to ensure students continued making academic progress.
High school grades will be issued in the fall when additional components, such as the graduation rate, are added to the calculation.