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Far Fewer California Schools Meet Targets in State Testing

Student scores continue to improve, but many campuses can't keep up with rising expectations.

September 01, 2006|Howard Blume and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

Just over half of California's schools met their state testing improvement targets -- far fewer than last year -- a disappointing result that was fueled by schools' inability to keep pace with rising expectations.

This leveling off was especially worrisome in the data for poor students and African Americans.

The trend in Los Angeles mirrored that of the state, with 50% of schools hitting their growth target on the state Academic Performance Index, according to a Times analysis. Last year's number was 65%.

A school's API score is a number from 200 to 1,000 based mainly on test scores. California's schools continued to improve, but not as many hit their goals as before. And though the performance of poor and minority students also continued to improve, the achievement gap between these groups and their white peers persisted.

"It's going to be harder to gain as we move forward because there's a point where the achievement level plateaus," said Kim Boscardin, senior researcher for the UCLA-based National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. "I think that's what we're seeing, especially when you're using a standardized test."

Also, two categories of students had to be factored in this year: English learners and students with disabilities. Shortcomings in these newly included groups accounted for one in eight California schools that didn't meet improvement goals.

The results are not surprising "since we had more subgroups included in the analysis," Boscardin said.

All told, 52% of California schools met their target on the Academic Performance Index -- 24% fewer schools than last year.

"The results are mixed but encouraging," state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said. "It's easier for a runner to knock five minutes off a 20-minute mile than off an 8-minute mile. But we know we can still improve, and this is a fair accountability system." He emphasized that the achievement gap was "unacceptable."

The performance levels of African American students were lower to begin with, and blacks hit their improvement targets at fewer schools. African Americans at 68% of schools made their target last year; only 57% hit it this year. The trend was the same for Latinos and the poor, though the percentages were higher.

The two newly incorporated categories -- English learners and special education students -- are among the most challenging for educators. Students with disabilities vary widely, from high achievers to those with profound handicaps. From the collective data, it's hard to discern to what extent lower scores suggest a deficient academic program.

The data for English learners also include pitfalls. The population changes each year, with recent immigrants taking the tests and the most able English speakers -- often the best test-takers -- moved out of that group.

But federal standards include those groups and now state indicators do too. And 460 schools got knocked into the unsuccessful category because of it.

Banning High in Wilmington has low test scores but could have been an API success story for nearly doubling its growth target. English learners got better too, but not enough, so the school failed under the enhanced measure.

Palisades Charter High, a star performer in the district, also improved its school-wide score. But it fell short when scores of English learners dropped sharply and those of disabled students slipped slightly.

Mayall Street Elementary in North Hills shared a similar fate, despite its school-wide API of 823, well above the state's proficiency standard of 800. "We're really proud of our score," Principal Barbara Fuller said.

But last year, she said, the district consolidated hearing-impaired students at her school; most of them were English learners reading well below grade level. Fuller said they pulled down subgroup scores both for English learners and students with disabilities. "I knew it would be an issue," she said. "This is a challenge we'll have to meet in terms of addressing the needs of these students."

The summary results for the Los Angeles Unified School District were conflicting. District scores continued to rise somewhat faster at elementary schools and slightly more at middle schools.

The average high school score declined, however. That was due to a statistical anomaly, Assistant Supt. Esther Wong said. Three high schools opened in areas where students perform more poorly on tests, she said, so there were more lower-scoring campuses to average into the total.

In fact, 55% of high schools received a higher API score. On the other hand, 64% hit their targets last year; this year, only 22% did. District officials described a raft of initiatives underway to improve secondary school achievement.

The number of Los Angeles Unified schools that reached the statewide proficiency target rose from 96 to 104.

Hundreds more campuses still fall below that measure.

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