More than half of Los Angeles Unified School District's elementary campuses raised their state achievement rankings last year, far outpacing the rate of improvement of other elementary schools in the region, data released Thursday showed.
Still, Los Angeles Unified elementary schools have a long way to go: On average, they remain in the bottom half statewide despite moving up. The district's middle and high schools are not showing as much improvement.
Fifty-three percent of the district's more than 430 elementary schools raised their state rank, according to a Times analysis of the state data. That group fueled the district's average increase for elementary schools from 3 to 4 on the scale of 1, the worst, to 10, the best.
In contrast, 28% of all other elementary schools in Los Angeles County showed progress last year; the average ranking for those elementary schools remained at five.
In Los Angeles Unified, Supt. Roy Romer welcomed the news about his district's elementary schools.
"The teaching that is occurring here is the right kind of teaching," he said.
However, L.A. Unified's middle schools remained a 2 on average and high schools continued to average a 3. For the rest of Los Angeles County, middle and high schools averaged the fifth rank.
L.A. Unified officials said the elementary schools' performance shows that teachers are focusing on California's new, tough academic standards in math, English and history that are the biggest factors in the state test scores.
"That sets a foundation," said Principal Carmel Vela-Madady of Erwin Street Elementary, which rose four ranks since 1999, from the second decile statewide to the sixth, which is better than the state average.
The Van Nuys campus raised its achievement levels although it is overcrowded and about 80% of its 1,070 students, mainly Latino and Armenian, are learning English as a second language. Faculty there said their meetings every Tuesday -- part of the routine in L.A. Unified elementary schools -- have helped teachers collectively work on instructional strategies.
The statewide rankings, part of the Academic Performance Index, divide all California schools into 10 equal groups based on their scores on the annual tests given each spring.
This year, results from standards tests account for 80% of elementary and middle school achievement scores and 73% of high school marks.
That represents a big change from previous years, when the accountability program relied mostly on results from the Stanford 9 basic skills test, which was not fully aligned with state standards and classroom instruction.
"Despite the [state's] budget difficulties, standards-based reform has a solid foundation in California," said Kerry Mazzoni, state secretary of education. "It's imperative to stay the course."
L.A. Unified's elementary school rankings "are growing faster than others," said David Rogosa, a Stanford University statistician who studies the state's school accountability system. "They are closing the gap to some extent."
But the gap remains. In affluent La Canada Unified, Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified, Manhattan Beach Unified, San Marino Unified and Hermosa Beach Elementary, all schools remained in the highest rank, where they have been for four years.
In Orange County, half of all elementary, middle and high schools were in the eighth, ninth and top ranking. In Ventura County, more than half of all campuses ranked 7 or better. In contrast, a majority of Los Angeles Unified schools were ranked 3 or lower.
High schools in Los Angeles Unified remain a particular worry. Twelve of the 49 comprehensive high schools received the bottom rank of 1 and only five did better than the state average.
Romer said the district is targeting middle and high schools with a series of reforms.
In Ventura County, fewer than 15% of all schools improved their standing last year, and in Orange County, fewer than 13% did. But officials attributed that in part to the difficulty in raising scores that are already high.
"When you're doing a good job, as most suburban schools are, you don't worry about the next thing coming down the road," Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools, said. "Right now there's no crisis, as there was in Los Angeles."
In Los Angeles Unified, one bright spot was Garden Grove Elementary in Reseda. It saw a big boost in its rankings, from the third statewide decile to the seventh over the last four years. More than half of its 518 students are learning English as a second language. Teachers there said they have pulled together to focus on raising test scores and helping children learn.
Fourth-grade teacher Anne Morrison, who came to the campus two years ago after more than 20 years elsewhere in the district, said, "I've never seen a staff so cohesive and dedicated to the same cause."
Teachers also credit the Open Court reading program, which stresses phonics and provides highly structured lessons that they said seem to particularly benefit English learners