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Schools' Reward for Achievement Is Frustration

March 10, 2004|Duke Helfand, Joel Rubin and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

For the fourth year in a row, students at Wilson Elementary in Santa Ana have far surpassed expectations on statewide standardized tests. But once again, the improving school has landed in the academic basement among California's public schools.

"It's a slap in the face when you meet these targets and the state tells you you're still a [low-ranked] school," said Wilson Principal Robert Anguiano.

His frustration followed the release Tuesday of statistics showing that his campus and 404 others around California have remained stuck in the lowest of 10 positions since state rankings began in 2000.

This disappointing result, school officials said, did not tell the whole story behind these schools on the rise.

Wilson Elementary and dozens of other low-ranking schools across Southern California actually produced some of the biggest test-score gains under the ranking system.

Partly because of the way the state designed the ranking system, these schools have had a hard time separating themselves from many other campuses whose test scores have barely budged or even declined. And schools like Wilson have struggled to move up because many schools in the higher rankings also have improved their test scores.

"It's a sign that the state isn't validating all the work you've done," said Anguiano. "[Scores] are going up and up, but we've still got this ranking."

The ranking system is part of the state's Academic Performance Index, which uses standardized test results in grades two through 11 to measure achievement.

Each year, the academic performance of every California school is measured by the index, in which each school receives a score ranging from 200 to 1,000, and 800 is the target score set for underachieving schools. To compare a school with others, the state also divides campuses into 10 roughly equal groups, whose results were released Tuesday.

Beyond bragging rights, those rankings are used to help identify schools that need extra help or possible shakeups, such as a new principal.

Among Orange County schools, 5.7% were ranked at the lowest level -- compared with 21.9% of the schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. At the other extreme, 19.1% of Orange County's schools ranked at the 10th, or highest, level, compared with 4.2% for the L.A. schools.

Schools, like Wilson, that serve mostly low-income and minority children typically wind up in the lowest ranks, while suburban campuses with more affluent students have generally reached higher ranks, according to the test data. And that pattern has held for the program's four years.

Sixty-two percent of schools that were in rank 1 four years ago are still in the bottom rung. These include 14 schools in Santa Ana, as well as others in Los Angeles, Compton and Lynwood.

Anaheim's Paul Revere Elementary is among the schools unable to break out of the first rank, despite the fact that its 1,055 students have far exceeded their API targets each of the last four years. In 2002, for example, Revere students jumped 69 points on the API scale, even though state formulas required an increase of only 13 points.

Principal James Gardner said that, in the first years of API testing, teachers and administrators worried more about school rankings. After four years, however, he believes his staff understands the disconnect between Revere's rank and its progress.

"There was a time when these ranks grated on us," he said. "But we know that the system isn't logical. It doesn't make sense."

Gardner said he will explain the test results to teachers and ensure that they are not misled by the rankings. In previous meetings he has used the analogy of a sports team: "We don't need to focus on what place we finish in," he said. "We need to make sure we have more wins than last year."

State education officials say the API system is working as intended. "No one is [punishing] any school for being in the first decile," said William Padia, director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation for the state Department of Education. "It's just meant to show how they are doing relative to everyone else."

Along with the state-wide rankings, the API system also compares schools with similar demographics. When placed along side similar schools, for example, Santa Ana's Wilson Elementary jumps to the fifth rank.

And the system helps identify schools in need of attention -- campuses such as Century High School in Santa Ana.

While the school has showed modest improvement on state and federal standardized testing, poor API scores brought a state intervention team 1 1/2 years ago to make recommendations for improvement.

The state team returned for a follow-up visit recently to evaluate Century's progress, said Nuria Solis, the district's student achievement counselor. Solis said state school officials have the authority to take control of a school that continues to underperform, but emphasized that it was highly unlikely Century would suffer this fate.

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