Despite rising standardized-test scores across Orange County, the county's overall ranking in the state slipped from sixth to seventh, according to new data released Tuesday.
The state's second statewide Academic Performance Index ranking also showed that more than 75 Orange County schools--including traditional powerhouses such as those in the Irvine and Capistrano unified school districts--turned in lackluster performances when compared with other campuses across California that have students from similar backgrounds.
Orange County's percentage of top-ranking schools stayed exactly the same: 48.5% of schools achieved a ranking of 8,9 or 10, putting them in the top 30% of schools. The percentage of schools that ranked as a low 1, 2 or 3, however, climbed slightly, from 18.6% to 20.7%. Though county scores generally improved, so did those at schools across California.
But there was also much to cheer about in the data released Tuesday: Seventeen percent of California's public schools met a state standard for academic accomplishment last year, a five-point improvement over 1999. Students in Orange County surged beyond that, with 34% of schools scoring 800 or above on the API, up from 24% in 1999.
One county education official was surprised but not concerned by the county's drop in rankings. Orange County, with an average API score of 697, is only two points below San Diego County, which grabbed the sixth-place spot, said Linda MacDonell, assistant superintendent for instruction at the county Department of Education.
"As this gets more and more competitive, you're going to see smaller and smaller gains, which means we're really pushing the envelope," she said. "When you slip in the ranking, you're concerned but . . . I'm looking at a number of the schools that are doing a whale of a good job."
There also was consolation for many schools that still fall far short of the state's benchmark score of 800. Nearly 60 county schools, including many in the struggling Santa Ana Unified School District, were stars when compared with their statistical peers across the state.
For purposes of comparison, The Times looked at schools that showed a gap of at least five points between the two rankings.
"We're delighted," said Sharon Blakely, principal at Whittier Elementary School in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. That school had a statewide rank of 3 but jumped to 10 when compared with other similar schools.
"Make the picture in your head," Blakely said. "There are 100 schools just like Whittier in the state--meaning 95% of students don't speak English and they're poor children. Whittier children do better than 95 of those schools, so that means what we are putting together is working."
The API, started last year as the cornerstone of Gov. Gray Davis' effort to improve the lackluster performance of schools, is intended to measure academic improvement. Each of about 7,000 schools receives a score ranging from 200 to 1,000. The state last year set 800 as a target, and only 12% reached that level based on their 1999 test scores. In Orange County, 24% of schools hit the target in 1999.
Improvement, rather than absolute standing, is the goal. Schools that reach or exceed their targets are eligible for financial rewards, ranging from modest per-pupil amounts for the schools to hefty $25,000 bonuses for teachers in low-ranking schools that show huge gains.
For now, API scores are based solely on the Stanford 9, a standardized basic-skills test given each spring to 4.3 million children in grades 2 through 11.
In the fall, schools received API scores and found out whether they hit their previously set targets. On Tuesday, state officials released two sets of rankings. One ranks schools on a scale of 1 to 10 based on their standing statewide; the other lists their status when compared with schools whose students are similar in terms of poverty, family education, English fluency and other factors. The state also assigned schools their target scores for next year.
Later this year, state officials will announce which campuses will receive bonus checks for good performance.
David Rogosa, a statistician and education professor at Stanford University, said his analysis indicates that the statewide rankings appear to be fairly reliable. The chances are reasonably small that a school would mistakenly receive or lose out on a reward, he says in a forthcoming report.
Rogosa is less sanguine about the similar-schools rankings, which weigh a school's performance against that of 100 supposedly comparable schools.
The data used to compile the lists of similar schools are imprecise, Rogosa and others acknowledge, in many cases because the information comes from the children themselves. Last year, the state had to revise the similar-schools rankings because some schools provided faulty data. State officials said the numbers this year are much sounder.