Tuesday, September 15, 2009



by Howard Blume/LA Times online | L.A. Now :: Southern California -- this just in

September 15, 2009 |  9:41 am

The state Department of Education released school ratings this morning that paint an incrementally improving portrait of California's kindergarten-12th grade public education system.

The Academic Performance Index focuses on whether a school has improved, and by that metric, most schools are getting better—just as they have in most years since this formula was adopted.

Forty-two percent of all California schools scored at or above the state’s target 800, up six percentage points from the year before. This includes 48% of elementary schools, 36% of middle schools and 21%  of high schools. The index is a 200 to 1000 scale. If all the students at a school were proficient, the school’s score would be 875. If all were advanced, the score would be 1000.

The state evaluation was not the only one released this morning. California schools are also judged by a federally mandated system and this system gets more difficult to satisfy with each passing year. Because of that, a decreasing number of California schools are successful under that standard.

Under Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal measure, either a school has an adequate percentage of academically proficient students to meet the required standard or they don’t. This bar has begun to rise sharply every year, and, as a result, more schools are judged as failing annually, even some that are showing progress by other measures.

Fifty-one percent of California schools made the rising federal standard in 2009, a decline of 1 percentage point from the previous year. The number of high schools hitting the mark declined from 49% to 37%. The picture was worse for schools that receive federal aid to help low-income students. Only 30% of these schools met the target, compared with 44% last year, when the target proficiency rate was lower.

These evaluations have a potentially profound impact on reforms adopted last month by the L.A. school board, which governs the nation’s second-largest school district. Under this plan, a school is regarded as failing if it’s been persistently labeled as a “program improvement” school under the federal system. By 2014, most schools in California will be labeled as failing unless Congress changes the federal No Child Left Behind law; schools improve in a dramatic, unprecedented way; or the state waters down its academic standards.

So far, program-improvement status has captured schools that are generally regarded as low performing. But that’s a tough label for 112th Street Elementary School in Watts, which is 60% Latino, 40% African American and all low income—most students live in the nearby Nickerson Gardens public housing.

By the federal standard, 112th Street has the lowest rating. It has been in what is known as Program Improvement for five or more years. And by that measure, the school is among more than 200 that are eligible to be taken over by groups inside or outside the district.

Over five years, 112th Street has cut in half the number of fifth graders who score in the lowest two academic categories in math and English. And it’s doubled the number of those who score as proficient or advanced.  For the last three years, the school’s state-issued improvement targets on the performance index were 10 points, 8 points and 5 points. The school blew past these targets with gains of 35, 57 and 34 points.

Principal Brenda Manuel, beginning her sixth year at the campus, makes no excuses for her school’s inability to keep up with a federal standard that seems to rise just out of reach every year.

“We knew that the bar was getting higher and higher so we’ve been working to try to surpass it every year,” Manuel said. “I think it’s good because every child needs to be at grade level and doing well. When the bar goes higher our job is to try to get ourselves to go higher.”

Her school’s funding sources haven’t been hit as hard by the state budget crisis as those of other campuses, so she is able to keep class sizes small this year. But she did recruit a corps of parent volunteers to help clean up because of reduced custodial services. Monday morning, she called in a group of fourth graders with low standardized test scores to make it clear that she expected them to improve: “I asked them, ‘Did they want help?’ They said yes, and I said, ‘We’re going to help you.’ ”

These efforts will include Saturday school and meetings with parents.

“My children can tell you what their scores are. They’ll tell you, ‘I’m far below basic but not for long.’ ”

She plans to quiz the fourth graders on their multiplication tables next Monday.

“I just don’t think that Superintendent Cortines would come to a school like ours and want to take it over,” Manuel said.

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