Hundreds of California high schools met this year's federal academic targets released Thursday only because the state uses easier standards for high schools than for elementary and middle schools, a Times analysis has found.
But even with this boost, just 48% of the state's high schools met the federal standard of "adequate yearly progress" in this year's results.
The Times analysis identified about 300 high schools that were reported as meeting all federal standards even though their combined proficiency scores in math or English language arts on the California standards tests fell below proficiency levels required for federal compliance this year. Their passing marks were based on much higher scores registered on the easier high school exit exam.
In practical terms, this means that high schools are not being consistently evaluated on what their students are supposed to be learning. The situation exemplifies California's complex, uneven and often competing state and federal accountability systems.
State education officials emphasized the positive Thursday: an incremental narrowing of the achievement gap that separates the much higher performance of white and Asian students from that of blacks and Latinos.
State officials also pointed to widespread gains on California's Academic Performance Index, which the state developed to evaluate schools and set improvement goals.
But there's also a second rating system that the state developed to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. And within that framework, high schools get a break.
Unlike elementary and middle schools, high schools are not rated on whether students master course work intended for their grade level. Instead, the accountability measure is the high school exit exam. It's one of California's high school diploma requirements, designed as a minimum standard for confirming what students have learned. The exam's math section, for example, is based on seventh-grade standards with some first-year algebra.
If high schools were rated by the results of the state's STAR tests -- the method for the lower grades -- hundreds more would be subject to potential sanctions for insufficient academic achievement.
Instead, the state chose to base a high school's federal rating solely on the results of the exit exam, which is required of all high school students in 10th grade. (Students who don't pass the test can take it repeatedly to earn a diploma, but the high school is rated only on how students performed during their one test-taking session in 10th grade.)
State Deputy Supt. Deb Sigman said the federal government mandated that high schools be rated via a test that all students take -- which made measuring math especially difficult. That's because high school students take math courses based on skill and personal preference, not grade level. By contrast, all students take the exit exam, so it fit federal rules, Sigman said.
"The state Education Department and the [state] Board of Education were in a difficult position when they had to choose a measure," Sigman added, and the exit exam "filled the bill. So it had to be retrofitted to do that."
The state required a somewhat higher score on the exit exam for a student to be counted as proficient for the purposes of complying with No Child Left Behind. Nonetheless, a student could pass the math portion of the test without answering a single algebra question correctly.
Sigman acknowledged that the original reason for using the exit exam no longer applies. The federal government now allows many states more leeway.
In the meantime, proficiency based on the exit exam hasn't kept pace with what students are supposed to learn.
For federal compliance, half the students at Fairfax High were proficient in math last year. But only 17% of students actually scored proficient or better in the math course they took -- regardless of the level of difficulty. That's well under the current requirement that 32.2% of high school students be proficient in math.
Fairfax Principal Ed Zubiate, whose school has improved by multiple measures, sees a legitimate justification for using the exit exam. The results matter to students because it affects their graduation. "We're able to use that as a motivator," he said.
But Glendale Unified School District Supt. Mike Escalante considers the exit exam a poor cousin in a comparatively sophisticated state system: "It amazes me they would use such a simple standard."
All five Glendale Unified high schools made their federal targets, but two would have fallen short if the state had relied on tests measuring what students had learned in their math classes.
Nearly a decade ago, exit exam foes worried that even this rudimentary test would deny diplomas to students at schools that failed to impart basic skills. Having a second reason for the exam bolstered its political prospects.