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New state rules raise bar on school scores

Campuses are required to make progress toward closing the achievement gap between whites and minority students.

March 28, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Superior Elementary in Chatsworth, as its name implies, is anything but deficient, with a state ranking that far surpasses the state's measure of success.

But under new state rules, the school could go from A+ to F in a hurry. The regulations require schools to make measurable progress toward closing the gap between whites and lower-achieving minority students. And the scores of its students learning English aren't rising fast enough.

Superior is not alone.

The same fate likely awaits other campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The schools met their improvement goals for 2006 but would not have under the 2007 rules.

"It's going to be more challenging for schools to reach their growth target," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. But "closing the achievement gap is not only an economic imperative, but a moral imperative."

The state's primary measure of success is the Academic Performance Index, which grades schools on a scale from 200 to 1,000 based on student test scores in math, English and other subjects. Schools are required to meet annual improvement targets. Minorities, the poor, the disabled and other groups also have to improve, but until this year, the achievement gap could widen even while a school received credit for getting better.

The state's push is in concert with national efforts under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has its own ever-increasing requirements for closing the achievement gap.

Some critics view the state's increased attention to the achievement gap as long overdue or even insufficient. Others worry that more and more schools will be unfairly branded as failures.

Superior Street Elementary has surpassed the state's API target score of 800. It's edging close to 875 -- the score a school would earn if every student tested as "proficient." Even its English learners are flying high by district standards, but starting next year, they'll have to do better. They must improve either by five points or 5% of the difference between their score and 800, whichever is more.

Or, put another way, the achievement gap must begin to close or a school won't make its annual improvement targets.

Principal Jerilyn Schubert already had made helping English learners a staff focus for the year. Her efforts include more English-language instruction and an effort to pre-teach -- to introduce some upcoming concepts to limited-English speakers ahead of the rest of the class.

For their parents, she has English-language classes on campus and parent-education seminars.

Some of her students will end up at Nobel Middle School in Northridge, with a stellar API for secondary schools of 839.

Nobel also met last year's improvement requirements for minorities, poor students and other groups. But it would have fallen short under the new rules because its disabled students did not improve enough.

As at Superior, Principal Bob Coburn already has turned his attention to the underachieving group, which includes students who are visually impaired, learning-handicapped and/or emotionally disturbed. He said his goal is to move students out of special education classes, but that leaves the lower-testing students behind, which makes it hard to improve the test scores in this group.

In all, among L.A. Unified schools that met last year's improvement targets, 10% of the elementary schools would now fall short along with 16% of middle schools and 20% of high schools, a Times analysis showed. And this comes in a school system with many schools already labeled as failing.

The new rules also could trip up the ratings of lower-ranked schools that are getting better, such as Washington Middle School in Pasadena. It made its API targets. Overall, it's in the lowest 20% of schools, but in the upper 20% of schools that serve similar student populations.

Higher standards have made a positive difference, said Assistant Principal Alex Ruvalcaba. "We've had to seriously look at the curriculum and instruction we're providing," he said. "It's a harder time for teachers and for students. For a school to be effective it has to be a learning community with educators who meet on a consistent basis and share strategies and who use data to drive instruction."

Besides highlighting the new rules, state Department of Education officials Tuesday released rankings that compare individual campuses to others in California and, separately, to similar schools.

Based on this data, L.A. Unified officials once again could show that the school system is improving faster than others in the state. At the same time, the district's test scores remain below the state average.

Among the biggest gainers: Lanai Road Elementary in Encino has moved from the bottom 30% of schools to the top 10%. Other schools that have made similar strides include the Mid-City Magnet, a middle school, and Cleveland High in Reseda.

Critics of the API system say that the new standards come without specific interventions for failing to close the achievement gap.

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