California high schools, which had been the weak link in efforts to raise achievement levels, showed significant signs of improvement this year on state tests, according to results released Friday.
More than two-thirds of high school campuses met test score goals set by the state, twice as many schools as last year, the new statistics showed.
Teachers and administrators attributed the improved results on the state's Academic Performance Index to an intense focus on California's academic standards in English and math, which spell out the skills and material students are supposed to know at each grade level. For the first time, those standards accounted this year for most questions on annual standardized tests.
Experts also pointed to students' growing familiarity with the 5-year-old mainly multiple-choice exams, noting that schools regularly give practice tests to get students comfortable with the format.
Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said that such "teaching to the test" makes sense now that all schools are aware of what students need to learn. "If you are teaching to the standards, you are simultaneously teaching to the test," O'Connell said.
The high school gains reflected broader improvements in kindergarten-through-12th-grade achievement this year on the Academic Performance Index.
The higher scores, however, were tempered by students' less-than-stellar performance on national tests and evidence that vast numbers of California's public school students are not proficient in grade-level reading and math.
Using a composite of test results, the index assigns scores to schools on a scale of 200 to 1000, and sets improvement targets each year. The goal for each school is 800.
The statewide median score for elementary schools this year was 728, up 29 points from the year before. Middle schools' median was 681, up 19 points. High schools remained the lowest scorers at 614 points, 25 more than last year; but a greater percentage of high schools than ever before met their targets for yearly improvement.
Overall, 78% of schools statewide met their targets this year, up from 52% last year. As in the past, elementary schools did best: 82% reached their goals, an increase from 60% last year. Sixty-nine percent of middle schools met the expectations, up from 38% last year. And 67% of high schools met the state goals, compared with 30% last year.
(API scores for individual campuses are available on the Internet at the California Department of Education's Web site at api.cde.ca.gov.)
But behind those optimistic figures are grimmer ones. For example, just 33% of 10th-graders and 32% of 11th-graders were deemed proficient in English this year on the very state tests that were used to generate the accountability scores, according to figures released in August. Similarly, only 36% of fifth-graders were proficient in English.
The annual API goals stress a trend toward improvement more than they concentrate on any absolute achievement score. The growth targets assigned by the state Department of Education can be quite modest, as small as just 10 points a year.
"Even if you are low-performing but improving, that's good news," said Bill Padia, director of policy and evaluation for the Department of Education. Padia said more schools met their accountability targets this year by lifting the very lowest performing students out of the bottom achievement rungs.
The tests show how well students are doing in key subjects such as math, social studies and language arts. For second-graders, they can be as simple as identifying words and their opposites and knowing the meaning of simple prefixes such as "un." In high school geometry, test takers must, for example, calculate the length of missing sides of right triangles and compute the volume of a cone.
Gov. Gray Davis, who launched the index four years ago as the foundation of California's school accountability system, touted Friday's results as proof that his reforms were paying off for the state's neediest students.
Davis, who will leave office next month after being recalled on Oct. 7, appeared at Coliseum Street Elementary School in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles to make his last test score announcement as governor. He told students: "You are my proudest achievement." The campus raised its score by 114 points this year to 681.
Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools as a whole raised their median scores by 44 points, to 685. Although that score remains 43 points below the state median, Los Angeles educators said they were very pleased that 90% of their elementary campuses met their state targets this year, up from 87% last year.
"This school district should be jumping with joy that in four years of standards-based education we have come this far," said Supt. Roy Romer. "It's very impressive, given all the urban challenges."