Behind last week's release of the latest school grades was unflattering news for the Pinellas and Hillsborough districts: a drop in rank among other Florida school systems.
Hillsborough fell from No. 24 to No. 38 among the state's 67 districts this year while Pinellas is No. 49, down from No. 40. Among the 12 biggest districts Hillsborough is now ninth and Pinellas is 10th.
Hillsborough's district grade also dipped — from an A to a B — while Pinellas held on to a B for an eighth straight year despite coming as close as it ever has to a C.
The grades are based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, and districts earn points in a number of categories.
The St. Petersburg Times ranked districts based on the number of points earned. The Florida Department of Education doesn't rank districts.
"Clearly, we have work to do to get to where we want to be," Hillsborough district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. He added that at 517 points, Hillsborough came close to the 525 needed for an A "but the state doesn't hand out B+ grades."
Pinellas associate superintendent Bill Lawrence said as far as he knows, the district has not looked in depth at district rankings. And he wasn't sure how much good it would do.
"We have always tended to focus on individual schools," he said. "School by school, subject by subject … that's the kind of work that I'm trying to have my staff work on."
The Education Department rates districts with the same formula used to grade schools. Districts get points based on the percent of students reaching proficiency on the FCAT, the percent that made a year's worth of progress even if they aren't proficient and the percent of lowest-performing students making decent gains.
But district point totals can be quickly sorted on the department site to see who's tops or not. And boosters in high-ranking districts often seize on the rankings for bragging rights.
"Three years (at No. 1)," St. Johns superintendent Joe Joyner told the St. Augustine Record last week. "It's amazing."
District rankings are but one indicator of success. They don't directly indicate the demographic challenges a district may face, such as higher percentages of low-income kids. And they can't spell out what other dynamics may be in the mix — such as, in Pinellas, a return to neighborhood schools that has quickly concentrated at-risk students.
On the other hand, they may be cause for a fist pump — or a red flag.
Since 2007, Pinellas has dropped 20 spots from No. 29. Over the same period, the percentage of Pinellas students meeting the state's academic bar has fallen in six of eight categories that are tallied.
In Hillsborough, this year's drop is, at this point, more anomaly than trend. The B was its first since 2007, after three straight A's.
The district touted past A's on its website. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia highlighted them in speeches.
"It's good to have an A," she told student leaders at a recent student news conference at Leto High. "Sometimes that A might not be the highest grade, sometimes you can't always figure out how you got there. But you know that you got that A.'
Elsewhere around Tampa Bay, the Pasco school district, which kept its B grade, is No. 34 overall this year, and No. 7 among the 12 biggest districts. It was No. 33 last year.
And Hernando, which went from an A to a B, is also No. 38, down from No. 22 last year.
Times staff researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this article. Reach Ron Matus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Reach Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356.