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L.A. schools improve by state standards, not enough by U.S. yardstick

Just like across California, campuses are at their highest-achieving level yet, but they aren't keeping pace with rapidly rising federal targets.

October 12, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • The Jordan Downs housing projects sit just beyond the fence of the Watts high school's track and football field.
The Jordan Downs housing projects sit just beyond the fence of the Watts… (Mariah Tauger/ Los Angeles…)

This year was the best in a long time for low-performing Jordan High School in Watts and for schools across California, according to rankings on the state's Academic Performance Index, which were released Thursday.

To the federal government, however, the long-beleaguered campus in Watts simply notched another dreary year of failure.

So goes the complicated method by which schools are evaluated in California.

The state rating system, based on standardized test scores, indicates that schools are getting better — and are at their highest-achieving level yet. But they aren't keeping pace with rapidly rising federal targets.

L.A. Unified, the state's largest school system, echoed that trend in the state in all respects, which was declared cause for celebration.

"Our students continue to improve, and not by just a point or two, or at a school or two, but throughout the district, and at an accelerated pace," said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

Statewide, more than half of schools, 53%, reached the target score of 800 in California's rating system. That's an increase of 4 percentage points over last year. Ten years ago, only 20% of schools reached 800.

The API ranks schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000 points, the higher the better. If every student at a school tested at grade level, its score would be 875.

Critics have charged that the state system reveals less about school quality and more about demographics — family income and parental involvement, for example — that are outside a school's control. It is used, however, by many parents and others to compare campuses.

The gains come amid several years of deep budget cuts during a state financial crisis.

"We've set a high bar for schools and they have more than met the challenge, despite the enormous obstacles that years of budget cuts have put in their way," state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement.

The glass, however, looked at least half empty by the federal yardstick. It's based on the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which requires nearly all students to be academically proficient by 2014.

At this point, more than three-quarters of students are supposed to test at or above grade level in English and math. By this standard, California — and most other states — are foundering.

Nearly 700 California schools have entered so-called program improvement status for the first time because they fell short of federal targets for two years in a row. And 71% of all California schools that receive federal aid are so designated. These schools have been characterized as failing, although many are well regarded.

For years, Jordan High had a poor reputation, despite some signs of progress. In 2011, about 12% of students tested at grade level in English; 2.5% in math.

Then-L.A. schools Supt. Ramon Cortines used his authority under No Child Left Behind to reorganize Jordan before the 2011-12 school year.

The district displaced the faculty and other staff and turned over management to outside groups. Half the school went to a charter operator, Green Dot Public Schools. The other half went to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit under the control of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The Green Dot portion bested Jordan's API of last year by 23 points, a strong gain. The partnership surpassed it by 93 points, the largest increase among traditional high schools in L.A. Unified.

Jordan still has vast room for improvement: only 19% of students tested at grade level in English; 8% in math. Few high schools are doing worse.

Still, the district's improvement across the board is significant, said David Rattray, an education specialist for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

"These are really strong, steady results," Rattray said.

Two L.A. schools this year were stripped of an API score because of mistakes or misconduct by a teacher. One was Capistrano Elementary in West Hills; the other was Short Avenue Elementary in Del Rey, which lost its rating for the second consecutive year.

The state denies an API score to a school when the scores of at least 5% of students are compromised by the actions of an adult involved in the testing process.

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