The percentage of California schools qualifying for performance-based cash rewards shrank by 21 points this year compared with last, the state reported Monday.
Just under half of the schools qualified for rewards, compared with 69% last year, according to an index based on standardized testing. And a quarter of nearly 7,000 schools in California included in the program actually lost ground.
The second annual release of the state's Academic Performance Index, based on Stanford 9 test scores, revealed some wild fluctuations in the state's accountability program.
Policy researchers said the score swings raise questions about the wisdom of attaching high-stakes rewards to the results of a single test. The performance index, though now based solely on schools' performance on the Stanford 9, will take into account other factors, such as graduation rates, in coming years.
"There's a lot of volatility in these test scores," said Thomas J. Kane, a professor of policy studies and economics at UCLA. "Very often, improvement one year is followed by declines the next."
One stark example: One-third of the low-ranking schools where individual staff members qualified in 2000 for hefty cash bonuses because of stellar test-score gains failed to meet their improvement targets this year.
That made these 94 schools, the academic stars of 2000, eligible for state aid designed to help flagging schools in 2001.
Still, Gov. Gray Davis praised the overall showing of schools this year. He noted that 57% met their target goals this year, even if some did not qualify for reward money because, for example, they failed to test enough students.
"Schools are rallying to the challenge of helping all students improve academically," he said.
By the time this year's $257 million in rewards is doled out, the state will have spent about $1 billion in two years on rewards for schools, teachers, principals, custodians, nurses and others. Some of that was in the form of $25,000, $10,000 or $5,000 checks to individual professionals at low-ranking schools that exceeded expectations last year.
The state schools superintendent acknowledged that California probably got ahead of itself in parceling out such big bonuses based on potentially fleeting improvements.
"In the long run, it's a good idea," Delaine Eastin said of the reward program. "[But] I thought we moved a little quickly on it. I don't think that much money should have been given based on a single standardized test."
But Kerry Mazzoni, Davis' education secretary, defended the reward programs, saying they have "helped to focus schools and teachers and provided financial support for teachers, something that's very important."
The Academic Performance Index, launched in January 2000 as a way to measure academic progress and rank schools, is the cornerstone of Davis' school-accountability program.
This year, two reward programs will be linked to the index. One is the Governor's Performance Award, a $157-million pot to be given out to schools, with a cap of $150 per tested pupil, to be used on campus as parent and teacher groups decide. This fund will be divided among all schools that qualify for rewards.
As was the case in 2000, an additional $100 million is earmarked for professional staff members at schools that rank in the state's bottom half but show the greatest gains above targets set by the state.
A thousand teachers, principals and others 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 those rewards until flawed data provided by about 370 schools statewide are corrected, probably in December.
Although the big-money rewards are touted by Davis as an incentive for teachers to serve in low-ranking schools, Mazzoni acknowledged that the souring economy could force legislators to reconsider how the state spends its education dollars in the future.
A one-time bonus program from 2000 worth $350 million was dropped. Under that program, all staff members at qualifying schools got checks for several hundred dollars, with the school itself receiving an equivalent total.
California Department of Education data showed that:
* Schools in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties each qualified for rewards at a higher rate than the statewide average of 48%. In Los Angeles County, 56% were eligible for rewards; 54% of Orange County schools and half of Ventura County schools qualified.
* The proportion of schools performing at or above the statewide target score of 800 (on a scale of 200 to 1,000) has also increased slightly, to 20% this year from 17% in 2000.
* As in the past, elementary schools showed the biggest improvements, followed by middle schools. High schools showed the least progress.