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School scores yield uneven numbers

Even leading campuses fall short under new rules mandating progress by subgroups. 'It's about getting better,' official says.

September 01, 2007|Howard Blume and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

For the first time, California has required schools to begin closing the achievement gap, and many schools, even some apparently successful ones, are not hitting the mark, according to data released Friday by the state Department of Education.

The results on this year's Academic Performance Index were a mixed bag overall, state officials and some experts said. The same held for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system.

Statewide, 1,597 schools failed to meet improvement targets because a group of students at the school did not do well enough. Some local campuses got an unpleasant surprise as result of new state rules, which seek to pressure schools to reduce the gap in standardized test scores between white and Asian students and lower-scoring groups, including Latinos, African Americans, the disabled, English learners and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The stellar 858 API score of award-winning Los Alamitos Elementary School, just east of Long Beach, was insufficient because students from low-income families scored 799. That's a result most schools pine for, but it wasn't, by one point, enough of an improvement.

"This whole API thing is not about being good, it's about getting better," said Gregory Franklin, superintendent of the Los Alamitos Unified School District.

Under the state's old rules, it was possible for a school to meet its improvement targets even as the achievement gap widened, because groups of students typically had goals that were smaller than the school as a whole. Under the new system, the lower a group scores, the more it has to improve the next year; if a group of students doesn't reach this higher goal, the entire school can't either.

Dixie Canyon Avenue Elementary School in Sherman Oaks saw its overall score soar by 13 points, to 843, well past the statewide target of 800. Again, children from low-income families improved too, but fell one point short under the new, more demanding formula.

To Principal Judith Dichter, Dixie Canyon's API results don't indicate failure. "I am very pleased by the growth of the children at my school," Dichter said. "To demean someone's improvement -- that I don't agree with."

But even with the heightened focus on the achievement gap, some groups of students remain at risk of statistical invisibility either because their numbers are too low to count as a subgroup or for some other reason. As the state puts increasing attention on improving the achievement of underserved students, tens of thousands of them may be left out of the equation.

At Dichter's school, for example, only 12% of students are African American. That falls below the percentage required for them to count as a separate group at a small school.

Statewide, 44% of black students attend schools where their numbers are not large enough to count as a group that must improve, according to a Times data analysis. Black students are not alone: 68% of Filipino students, 65% of disabled students and 15% of English learners attend schools where their numbers are "not significant." And those students who belong to especially small minority groups are almost never in the game: 99% of Pacific Islanders and 95% of Native Americans..

State officials said the raw data overstate the problem because black students, for example, may fall into another group at a school, such as students from low-income families. And school districts are responsible for such students even if individual schools are not.

But the achievement gap applies even to black middle-class students from Baldwin Hills or Ladera Heights, said Russlynn Ali, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy organization focused on education reform. And disabled students, she added, won't necessarily fit into another category if their numbers at a school are small, which is typically the case.

"Unless these groups of students, all of them, show up in our accountability system, they are not going to gets the tools and services they need," Ali said. Especially in Los Angeles, "there is a great fear that African Americans are becoming the invisible minority."

At Dixie Canyon, at least, Dichter said she looks up the individual scores of black students to make sure they are learning: "I want to see everyone do well."

That was also the response from Beverly Hills Unified. "All schools should be concerned about achievement gaps wherever we find them, whether they're statistically significant or not," said district Supt. Kari McVeigh. She said her district is instituting twice-monthly meetings among all teachers to discuss students' performance and help low-achieving students.

Across California, API scores rose modestly, from a median of 745 to 751. But fewer schools made all their achievement targets, 192 of them because of the new rules. The numbers of schools reaching the state's target of 800 crept up from 30% to 31%.

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