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School Rankings Rankle Some

Campuses can find themselves stuck among the state's bottom 10% despite improved test scores.

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

For the fourth year in a row, Sixth Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles has landed in the academic basement among California's public schools.

Statistics released Tuesday showed that the campus and 404 others around California have remained stuck in the bottom position since state rankings began in 2000. Once again, these schools ranked 1 on a scale of 1 to a coveted 10.

But the disappointing result did not tell the whole story behind this lack of movement.

Sixth Avenue Elementary and dozens of other low-ranking schools across the region produced some of the biggest testing gains over the last four years.

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 such as Sixth Avenue have struggled to move up because many campuses with higher rankings also have improved their test scores.

All that upsets Sixth Avenue Principal Katie Harris Greene, whose school near Los Angeles' Crenshaw district has consistently raised its test scores.

"I have people here who do not view themselves as a 1. Neither do I," Greene said. "When you put a label on an institution, you are doing a disservice to it."

The school 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 state gives every California school an API score from 200 to 1,000, with 800 being the target. 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.

(Results are available on the Internet at api.cde.ca.gov.)

Schools serving mostly low-income and minority children have more often wound up in the lowest ranks, while suburban campuses with more affluent students generally have reached the highest ranks. 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 on the bottom rung, according to a Times analysis of state data. These campuses are concentrated in urban districts such as Los Angeles, Compton, Lynwood and Santa Ana, among others.

Wilson Elementary is among the schools that have yet to break out of the bottom rank, even though the Santa Ana campus has far exceeded its API testing targets all four years.

"It's a slap in the face when you meet these targets and the state tells you you're still a decile 1 school," Principal Robert Anguiano said. "If you don't move up, it's a sign that the state isn't validating all the work you've done. [Scores] are going up and up, but we've still got this ranking."

Anguiano and teachers agreed that Wilson's ranking matters less to them than the improvement they see in their mostly Latino students, 91% of whom are learning English and 90% are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

"A lot of teachers are frustrated," Susan Lear, a 26-year Wilson veteran, said of the ranking system. "It can get you down if you let it, but that is not our focus here. We know what we're doing in our classrooms."

At Edgemont Elementary in Moreno Valley, a rank 1 school that also has shown improvement, Principal Maribel Mattox sought to turn Tuesday's results into a rallying cry.

"It tells us that we have to continue to work hard, to have high expectations of students," Mattox said. About 60% of the students are still learning English.

State education officials defended the API system, saying it is working as intended. Because the ranks are a comparative measure, a tenth of all schools will always occupy positions at the bottom and another tenth at the top, depending on their test performance.

"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."

And the system is a tool to identify struggling schools in need of extra attention -- campuses such as Virgil Middle School in the crowded Pico Union district of Los Angeles.

The sprawling campus has floundered in rank 1 for four straight years, showing only modest improvement while failing to meet its state test score targets. As a result, Virgil is under watch by state and school district monitors.

Administrators and teachers say it's hard to overcome hurdles faced by their students, many of whom are immigrants and speak English as a second language.

Math teacher Luis Herrero called the expectations by the state to improve test scores "very unrealistic."

"It's not possible, and it hurts me to say that," he said.

Monitoring visits from district officials "are nerve-racking," Assistant Principal Philip Toyotome said. "Our teachers feel like they are under the gun. As administrators, we feel the pressure too."

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