County schools improve test scores on Academic Performance Index

Schools in San Luis Obispo County continue to improve their state and federal test scores, according to results released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

Forty-six schools in San Luis Obispo County scored above the academic benchmark set by the state. That’s four more than last year. Those schools all topped 800 on the Academic Performance Index, or API, which is measured on a scale of 200 to 1,000.

Of those, six elementary schools had API scores above 900: Branch and Ocean View in Arroyo Grande and Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter, Bishop’s Peak, Los Ranchos and Teach in San Luis Obispo.

The remaining schools all placed within close range of the target, with most making gains.

The measurements are based on state tests that students in grades 2 through 11 took last spring and from the California High School Exit Examination. The data is used as an indicator of schools’ success by the state.

However, despite such strong scores, the number of schools that didn’t meet federal expectations led even more of them to slip into what is called “program improvement.”

Twenty-seven schools are in program improvement, compared with 16 schools on the list last year.

The anomaly of schools exceeding the state’s academic index target yet failing federal standards set by No Child Left Behind is plaguing schools statewide as the bar of measuring how many students score at a certain level of proficiency continues to abruptly rise each year.

Statewide, 913 new campuses were identified this year as program improvement schools.

Concern over what has long been viewed as an unattainable bar set by the federal standards prompted State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to issue a letter to U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week asking for relief from what he called the “flawed policies of No Child Left Behind.”

“At school, after school and among every significant ethnic group, California’s students are performing better than ever,” Torlakson said in a statement. “The failure here is in our politics, not our public schools.”

The federal No Child Left Behind Act measures a school’s growth in 10 demographic categories, including socioeconomic status, native language, ethnicity and disabilities.

If a school fails to reach the bar set for each category, the school fails the federal standard. If a school fails for two consecutive years, it becomes a program improvement school. To be removed from the list, schools must meet the federal standards for two consecutive years.

“It simply means that schools are not hitting unrealistic targets,” County schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said. “Fortunately, our sophisticated parents understand that, but it can still be discouraging to staff or a community to get labeled as a school that needs improvement.”

San Luis Obispo County schools continue to perform better than their state counterparts.

Statewide, 55 percent of elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools and 28 percent of high schools met or exceeded the target of 800 on the Academic Performance Index.

Locally, 82 percent of elementary schools, 91 percent of middle schools and 36 percent of high schools met or exceeded the target.

“The one thing that strikes me as the most encouraging is that even when hit with budget cut after budget cut, we continue to improve,” said Andy Stenson, the Lucia Mar Unified School District’s assistant superintendent of curriculum. “We have teachers up and down the Central Coast that are stepping up to the challenge and not letting fewer resources get in the way of progress.”

Additional class time

Grover Beach Elementary made the largest gain in the Lucia Mar school district — increasing its score 28 points to 826 from 798 the prior year.

The school, which has a high population of economically disadvantaged students and English learners, made a concerted effort to provide added class time for students, including summer school, Saturday school and during winter break.

By attending the added programs, many students at the school completed a 210-day school year compared with the 180-day offered district-wide, Stenson said.

“We used categorical money to fund these programs because we know these kids can learn; they just simply need more time to get there,” Stenson said.

In Atascadero, nearly all schools, excluding the smaller campuses, exceeded the target, with Atascadero Junior High making the largest gain.

Lori Thomas Hicks, principal of Atascadero Junior High School, said she attributed the 28-point jump to a focus on “school culture, effective teaching, seeing where the hiccups are and (fixing) those gaps.”

Another school noted for its success is Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles.

While the Paso Robles Unified School District remains last in the county in terms of scores, it is the only district to have improved its scores eight consecutive years. Not only did the district gain overall, but so did most schools in the district.

After hiring consultants to break down test results, the district, responding to its program improvement status, embarked on new methods of training and teaching that have produced results despite teacher layoffs.

Flamson Middle School showed the most progress, scaling the 800 mark.

Babette DeCou, director of curriculum, said the district-wide approach of coming up with strategies for every student — plus strategic courses and intensive reading programs for underperforming students — helped Flamson.

Cambria’s Santa Lucia Middle School, in the Coast Unified School District, showed the largest gain for local middle schools with an increase of 53 points, from 772 to 825.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter. Staff writers Sarah Linn and Pat Pemberton contributed to this report.