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Oxnard High District Put on Academic Watch List

It shows improvement but fails to meet U.S. scholastic standards two consecutive years.

September 01, 2004|Daryl Kelley and Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writers

Despite dramatic gains on student skill tests in 2004, the Oxnard Union High School District is one of just 18 in California to be placed on a watch list for failing to meet federal academic standards two years in a row.

The six major high schools in the 16,000-student Oxnard district showed sharp improvement in language and math tests this year -- two ranking first and second in Ventura County for progress among secondary schools, according to data released Tuesday.

But the Oxnard district, which serves mostly Latino students, one-quarter of whom speak limited English, failed to meet the minimum standard in one of 46 areas used to determine adequate progress in the federal No Child Left Behind program.

Just 11.1% of special education students were proficient on the language part of the spring basic-skills tests, one-tenth of a percentage point too low to meet the 11.2% federal standard for such students.

So Oxnard joined a federal watch list dominated in California by small low-income districts in farm communities.

"This is the disappointing part for us, but those are the rules and we live by them," Supt. Gary Davis said. "We're just elated about the test results overall. It's the first time we've had all six of our comprehensive high schools reach state goals for progress."

Chuck Weis, superintendent of schools in Ventura County, said the Oxnard high school district situation demonstrates a weakness in the federal program: Schools may improve greatly, but still face federal sanctions if they fall short in a single area two consecutive years.

"The problem is the federal standards are so arbitrary," Weis said. "The Oxnard district doubled the academic growth rate of the county and the state, and they're still going on the bad-boy list."

The California Department of Education also released Tuesday a preliminary wave of data showing that 64% of the state's 8,000 public schools met their federal targets, up from 54% last year.

Because of delays in state calculations, however, individual schools won't know for sure until next month whether they will be listed among campuses facing possible sanctions.

Ventura County, as usual, fared better than the state.

About 60% of local high schools met all federal standards, compared with 48% statewide, while 52% of middle schools met the criteria, compared with 44% statewide. About 75% of local elementary schools met the standards, while 74% did so statewide.

With the exception of Fillmore, every comprehensive high school in the county met the federal standards, Weis said. Fillmore failed only because 94% of its students took the test, one percentage point less than required.

Indeed, a big part of this year's improvement came because officials at nearly all of the county's 203 schools persuaded enough students to take the tests.

The federal program requires that schools receiving federal Title 1 money be sanctioned if they do not test enough students or don't meet learning goals to show they're making "adequate yearly progress."

Those schools must take steps to improve scores, including providing private tutoring, diverting at least 10% of their federal funding to teacher training and busing children to a better-achieving public school in the district. If a school fails to improve over seven years, it could be taken over by the state or a private contractor.

It is not yet clear which schools remain on the federal fail list, Weis said. But a Times analysis showed that 42 Ventura County schools that failed last year met federal standards this year.

Five of those were in the Oxnard High School District.

Jumping 37 points, Oxnard High School showed the most improvement in the county on the state Academic Performance Index, a key component of the federal program. Rio Mesa High School, also in the Oxnard district, had a 33-point gain and was second. The API scores schools from 200 to 1,000 points.

Among the middle schools, Ocean View in Oxnard led with a 48-point gain, while De Anza in Ventura gained 35 points, placing second. The most improved elementary was Will Rogers in Ventura, which gained 65 points.

Even in low-performing districts that had the most trouble reaching federal standards, many schools made substantial progress on the state API.

In the Oxnard Elementary School District, where 84% of the students are Latino and nearly half speak limited English, 13 elementary and three middle schools fell short of federal standards.

But all three middle schools showed much better than average improvement in academic scores and the district overall showed more improvement than the county average.

"So the question we ask ourselves is, 'Are we moving in the right direction?' " Weis said. "And it's abundantly clear that we are."

API scores showed that all schools in 19 of the county's 21 school districts met their state academic progress goals in regular education programs, Weis said. But a number of those schools did not meet federal standards.

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