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California Schools Show Big Gains in Test Scores

Education: In Orange County, three-fourths of schools qualified for cash rewards from state.


Two-thirds of California's public schools, far more than expected, lifted their scores on standardized tests enough to qualify for a rich pot of rewards set aside to spur academic achievement, according to a state report released Wednesday.

An even greater percentage of schools, 71%, met the state's prescribed targets on the new Academic Performance Index. But 238 of those schools failed to qualify for cash incentives because they did not test enough students or because they did not adequately boost the performances of sizable ethnic groups or of low-income students.

The percentage of schools in Orange County qualifying for rewards was 76%, significantly higher than the statewide figure and the highest in Southern California.

Overall, the scores of black, Latino and low-income students improved more than did those of whites and Asian Americans, suggesting that the state might be starting to narrow the troubling racial gap on test scores.

"I'm very pleased with the results," Gov. Gray Davis exulted in anews conference. "After two years, schools are exceeding even our most optimistic expectations."

The API is among a number of ambitious reforms that California has adopted in recent years. They include smaller class sizes, higher academic standards and more funds to attract and train new teachers. Principals and teachers say all of these changes have contributed to raising test scores.

Yet to come are a high school exit exam, which students will have to pass to graduate, beginning with the Class of 2004, and tests geared to the state's rigorous standards.

The surprisingly high rate of success among nearly 7,000 schools prompted some testing and education policy experts to suggest that the state might have set the bar too low, given the high monetary stakes for taxpayers. The state Department of Education had forecast that 60% of schools would meet their targets. Outside experts had predicted that far fewer would succeed.

Schools that qualified for rewards will divide $677 million, ranging from a projected $68 per student for schools that met their targets to a whopping $25,000 per teacher at typically low-performing campuses that demonstrated extraordinary gains. That is more money than has ever been awarded by any state to schools on the basis of results of a single test.

Many education watchers applauded the API results, noting that, for the first time, Californians can see for themselves whether schools are making academic improvements.

Still, the API came in for some sharp criticism from administrators in several districts, who noted that higher-performing schools were more likely to reap cash awards linked to achievement gains. Many of those schools needed to improve their index scores by only a point or two to qualify, but most far exceeded that gain.

State education officials have said for months that it was their intention to level the playing field. The formula used to compute the index gives more credit for raising the scores of students in the lowest tiers.

Los Angeles County had the lowest percentage of qualifiers in Southern California, with 68%. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, just fewer than 64% qualified. Statewide, 67.4% of schools qualified.

The API, launched last January as a way to rank schools and measure academic progress, is the cornerstone of Davis' school-accountability program. For now, it is based solely on the Stanford 9, a standardized test of basic skills that is scored against a national sample of pupils.

In January, schools were given index scores and assigned growth targets that they had to achieve to qualify for rewards. That's the carrot. The stick is that schools that fail to meet their improvement targets could eventually face takeover by the state.

The API is backed by a trio of reward programs. They are:

* The Governor's Performance Award, a $227-million pot to be distributed to schools, with a cap of $150 per pupil, to be used as parent and teacher groups decide. By early state Department of Education projections, unless more money is added to that pool, that would work out to about $68 per student for all qualifying schools.

* A one-time bonus program worth $350 million, to be awarded to all staff members in these same schools.

* A further $100 million earmarked for certificated staff members at schools in the bottom half who show the greatest gains above their targets. One thousand teachers whose students show the biggest improvements will receive $25,000 each; an additional 3,750 will get $10,000 each, and 7,500 will receive $5,000 each. The state will not be able to determine who is eligible for these rewards until faulty data from about 600 schools statewide are corrected, probably in December.

Checks will begin to flow in January, Davis said. He added that most teachers and principals appear to be unaware that the rewards even exist.

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