More than 1,200 California public schools -- despite steadily improved test scores over the last two years -- face the threat of federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, a Times computer analysis showed.
Under the federal law, schools get no credit for improving their test scores unless they meet strict annual targets. And this year, for the first time, the bar is rising for all schools in California by nearly 11 percentage points -- a huge leap for any campus.
Based on their current test scores, the 1,200-plus schools -- about 13% of the state's 9,000 public campuses -- are likely to be labeled failures by the end of this year. And based on the last two years of scores, a total of 3,500 would probably fail by 2008, the analysis showed.
The sanctions that many of these campuses may face this year are serious: Principals and teachers could be replaced or outside managers could be brought in to run a failing school.
"We're being punished because we can't make it over the high pole-vault bar," said Principal Kathy Kinley of De Anza Middle School, an Ontario campus whose rising test scores -- based on the last two years' improvement rate -- will not meet expectations this year. "We know we're not perfect. But we know we're improving."
The pressures created by No Child Left Behind are weighing on schools nationwide as they struggle to meet the demands of the 2-year-old law, which requires all campuses to have 100% of their students proficient in English and math by 2013-14.
President Bush has promoted the law as one of his signature domestic priorities -- one that challenges the "soft bigotry of low expectations."
But many teachers and administrators say the law puts too much emphasis on test scores. They, along with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry, say the Bush administration has not given schools enough money to get the job done, an accusation federal officials deny.
No Child Left Behind amended the existing federal education law that also required schools to meet annual targets.
The new measure sought to improve schools by requiring annual English and math tests, but left it up to the states to determine the annual improvement targets. Schools receiving federal funding for serving poor children would face sanctions if they did not improve.
California, which had adopted some of the U.S.' toughest proficiency standards before No Child Left Behind was enacted, resisted pressure to lower those rules, as some states did. But it tried to cushion campuses from the new testing pressures.
The state required schools to show the least amount of improvement under the law in the first six years to avoid thousands of campuses failing. State officials created that system hoping that Congress would revise the law when No Child Left Behind was reauthorized in 2008.
Under the state's system, elementary and middle schools had to show only that 13.6% of students were proficient in English and 16% in math over the program's first three years. The goals rise this school year to 24.4% in English and 26.5% in math, and stay there three years.
Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said California's strategy was meant to "let schools know what the expectations are as humanely as possible."
But even with the lowered expectations, thousands of schools would still face trouble. A recent state report found that 67% of California's public schools would fail to meet their targets next spring. It said 76% would fall short by 2008 and 99% would miss the mark by 2013-14.
The report included groups of students within schools that contribute to lower test scores, such as limited-English speakers and pupils in special education classes. Those data were not available for the Times analysis.
Today the state Education Department will release a list of about 500 schools that have failed to meet the federal targets two years in a row. They come in addition to 1,200 schools already targeted for falling short of goals.
All those schools must use some of their federal funds to offer students transfers to higher-performing campuses or provide after-school tutoring. If they still faltered, the federal sanctions, such as dismissal of principals, would kick in.
That could happen as early as next spring in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has identified 72 campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet test targets. Supt. Roy Romer said he would evaluate each school to determine the appropriate action and make recommendations early in 2005.
Those schools showing progress may get more teacher training or other assistance with curriculum. But others could lose principals and other personnel, or be converted into smaller schools, Romer said.