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State school rankings rise again; federal ratings suffer

A student raises his hand during third grade class at Park Ridge Elementary school in April.

School ratings on the state’s Academic Performance Index continued their rise this year even as hundreds of additional campuses were labeled as failures under rapidly rising and widely criticized federal standards.

For the first time, more than half of the state’s schools, 53%, reached the target score of 800, an increase of 4 percentage points over last year. Ten years ago, only 20% of schools reached 800.

As in past years, elementary schools performed the best, raising questions about whether the scores represented real, persisting academic achievement. The 800 threshold was reached by 59% of elementary schools, 49% of middle schools and 30% of high schools.

The API system gives schools a numerical rating on a scale of 200 to 1000, the higher the better. If every student at a school tested at grade level, its score would be 875.

Officials said they were pleased school ratings remain on the rise despite several years of sharp budget cuts because of 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 incredible efforts of teachers, administrators, school employees, parents and students should serve as an inspiration to us all. While there’s still more work to do, California’s schools have earned a vote of confidence.”

The glass looked half empty rather than half full, however, under the federal system for evaluating schools. The federal yardstick is based on the 2001 No Child Left Behind Law, which required 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. California also has in place some of the more rigorous learning standards in the nation, experts have said.

Nearly 700 California schools have entered “program improvement” status for the first time because they fell short of federal targets for two years in a row. These schools have been characterized as “failing” in the common parlance, although many of them are well regarded.

On the federal scale, 27% of elementary schools have hit the mark on academic achievement. The numbers are 18% for middle schools and 28% of high schools.

Historically, some states lowered academic standards so fewer schools would be identified as failing. The Obama administration also has allowed states to apply for waivers from some of mandates of No Child Left Behind. California has submitted a waiver application, but balked at agreeing to new federal policies that are part of successful waiver proposals submitted by other states.

The state rankings also show how groups of students are doing. These scores record a continuing achievement gap separating white and Asian students from their black, Latino and low-income peers. At the same time, academic improvement is broadbased — all groups are doing better than they were.

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: A student raises his hand during third grade class at Park Ridge Elementary School in April. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

 
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