Amid a pandemic that greatly disrupted traditional methods of education, Dave Murphy, director of assessment and accountability for the Monroe County School District, reported to the school board on June 22 that the percentage of third-grade students reading at grade level had dropped by 11.4% from 2019 levels.

Murphy said the drop was “significant” but also that he does not “think it was as bad as some people fear,” being that some drop in academic performance may have been expected due to remote learning and other challenges of pandemic schooling.

Some schools had larger drops in reading levels than others. The largest was a 45.5% drop seen at the May Sands Montessori School in Key West, which had 100% of its third-graders reading at grade level pre-pandemic. Murphy noted that May Sands only has 11 third grade students and the small size skews the data.

Ocean Studies Charter School in Key Largo, which has 22 third-grade students, experienced a drop of 38.8%. Principal Trisha Woods said that is not unexpected given the impact of the pandemic on a small school.

“I really don’t think this school year should be measured by third grade reading scores,” Woods said. Instead, she thinks it should be measured by dedication and perseverance from students, parents, teachers and school staff.

The school board and Murphy discussed how a school with a staff as small as Ocean Studies could experience added stress in a pandemic if a teacher is forced to go into quarantine or becomes ill. Woods said both students and teachers at Ocean Studies had to go into quarantine in the last school year. The charter school began the last school year on a fully remote system and transitioned into hybrid learning.

Not every school’s third grade reading performance fell. Key West’s Horace O’Bryant School saw an increase of about 16% in third grade reading levels. Sigsbee Charter School in Key West reported an increase of 6.6% and Big Pine Academy saw an increase of 14%, although it has only 11 third graders.

Not only did the level of third graders reading at grade level drop, the percentage of those students reading at “level one,” the lowest level, rose. The number of students at level one was 13% in 2019 and 18.7% in 2021.

The number of students reading at level four or higher went down from 37% in 2019 to 28.4%. Only Horace O’Bryant and Sugarloaf School reported slight increases in the number of third-graders reading above grade level.

There were some racial disparities in the drops in third grade reading levels. White students reading at grade level dropped about 3% while Hispanic students dropped from 58.2% in 2019 to 51.5% currently. Black students dropped from 50.6% to 38.6%. The number of Black students reading at level one rose from 9% to 30%. Hispanic students also saw a rise in the percentage at level one, from 16.1% to 23.4%. The number of white students reading at level one decreased from 27.3% to 12.8%.

Third-graders who fall under Exceptional Student Education saw a decrease in reading levels, from 46% to 31.4%, but also saw a decrease in the percentage reading at level one from 42% to 38.7%.

The data on third grade reading levels is the first to come back to the district and because of delays in testing, data on other subjects should come back in late July, Murphy told the school board.