Fewer than half of California's public schools met state targets for academic improvement this year, a sharp decline from last year, when most schools met expectations, according to data released Thursday.
State education officials voiced concern about the disappointing results, blaming ongoing budget cuts for raising class sizes and suggesting that schools were losing focus after five years of annual testing.
"Frankly, this is unacceptable," Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, said at a news conference at a Lennox elementary school. "The time has come for all of us to redouble our efforts. Education complacency is simply not an option. We need to focus as never before."
But testing experts said the leveling off followed a familiar pattern in school assessment programs, which typically produce sizable gains in the initial years followed by less growth later on.
The data released on Thursday represented this year's final installment of state and federal reports based on tests administered throughout California last spring. The others analyzed the test results in varying ways, but all showed that schools were improving at a slower rate than in the past.
The latest report tells whether schools met their goals on the Academic Performance Index, which grades campuses on a scale of 200 to 1,000 based on students' scores in math, English and other subjects. Schools are required to reach annual targets as they strive toward the state's goal of 800.
Separate groups within schools -- such as white and African American students -- also must demonstrate progress each year.
Overall, just 48% of about 6,500 schools statewide met their improvement targets this year, down from 78% last year, the data showed. There were no growth targets for 712 schools because they were new, were specialized campuses or did not test enough students.
Although not as severe as statewide declines, the performance of schools in Orange County similarly dropped. Results for about 20% of the county's schools were not available, but county officials said that only 76% of O.C. schools met their targets this year, down significantly from last year, when 94% of schools made the cut.
Schools statewide lost ground both on overall improvement and on the growth in their student groups.
Still, many school principals said their staffs were working diligently to raise test scores and respond to the pressures brought by the state, and separate federal rules that also demand improvement.
Charles Lewis, principal of Guinn Elementary School in Anaheim, said that although his students missed the state's growth targets on standardized tests, he had no plans to make wholesale classroom changes.
"Our perspective is that we stay the course," he said. "We are not going to dramatically change our teaching programs because we missed API by a point. We know that what we are doing is working."
Guinn Elementary indeed missed its API target by one point. To make the grade, the school needed to increase its API score by six points, from 690 to 696. Lewis was quick to point out that last year, the school increased its API score well above the mandatory 5% annual increase.
Lewis said news of the API scores did serve as a source of motivation to strengthen programs already in place. This year, for example, he has added two more teachers who work in small, intensive groups with students struggling in reading and writing. The school also implemented a kindergarten "boot camp" for children in need of more instruction before entering school.
"It gives us a little more determination," Lewis said of the test results. "We're sitting around belly-aching about the API. We've got work to do."
Barb Batson, principal of Leo Carrillo Elementary School in Garden Grove, said her staff was far from complacent, even as the school's testing gains showed signs of slowing.
Last year, the school's index score jumped 34 points. This year, it improved just one point, from 733 to 734, which was two points short of its target.
Batson expressed satisfaction with the hard work of her staff and said she envisioned no major changes in approach at her campus.
"We are certainly not concerned that it means we are on a downward path," she said of the latest scores. "The reality is that as we continue to move up this curve, we're going to slow down. We can't continue to improve forever."
Testing experts agreed, saying it's virtually impossible for schools to maintain aggressive growth year after year.
"This doesn't surprise me at all," said Pete Goldschmidt, a senior researcher at the UCLA-based National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.
Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa, Joel Rubin and Doug Smith, and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.