Big swing in test scores at North Coast schools
Published: Friday, August 30, 2013 at 2:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 at 2:25 p.m.
Nearly three out of four schools in Sonoma County saw their state academic score drop this year — a fall mirrored across California as teachers increasingly switch their focus to a new set of standards.
The sag in scores comes at the same time that 59 percent of Sonoma County schools reached or exceeded the state goal of 800 out of 1,000 on the state Academic Performance Index, the same rate as last year. Statewide, 51 percent of schools met the mark — a decline of two percentage points from last year.
The numbers were part of the federal and state academic results released Thursday by the California Department of Education. The findings are based on tests given last spring to students in grades two through 11.
The fall in scores was met with equal parts frustration and puzzlement as school districts try to emerge from years of deep budget cuts, shortened school years and increased class sizes while redesigning their academic focus to address a new curriculum labeled “Common Core.”
“If we hadn't seen very similar kinds of trends in the state data, I would be much more concerned, but our declines pretty much closely mirror the declines statewide,” said Mickey Porter, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. “It's still concerning. I know that our schools and teachers will be looking at the data and asking why.”
Within counties and districts, there were dramatic differences in how schools fared — another symptom of a testing system that is serving two masters, educators said.
“I think that is the question: Why they went down?” said Petaluma Superintendent Steve Bolman whose district-wide API fell eight points, to 815. “I would say they learned as much (as last year), but did they learn what is tested?”
In Lake County, 10 schools increased their API, 10 recorded lower scores and one stayed even with last year. But within those numbers, said senior director of educational services Tim Gill, schools posted wild fluctuations year over year.
“We have our bright spots, we had some big crashes,” he said. “We haven't really seen a year like this before, where the swing in the pluses and minuses have been this dramatic.”
In Mendocino County, six schools went into Year 1 Program Improvement, bringing the countywide total to 36, said Paul Joens-Poulton, executive director of educational services for the Mendocino County Office of Education.
In Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County's largest school district, the overall API remained unchanged at 790, but schools posted dramatically different results.
Piner High School posted the largest gains in Sonoma County except for the one-grade Sixth Grade Academy in Petaluma — increasing its score by 36 points. Elsie Allen High School rose 20 points. Santa Rosa Middle School fell 45 points, Rincon Valley Middle School dropped 21 points and Brook Hill Elementary went down 20 points.
Piner, which for years has been saddled with Program Improvement penalties, began a freshman academic transition program two years ago and the staff has embraced the Common Core, said Principal Sally Bimrose.
“Previously, there was kind of a punitive impact upon us and I think as a staff, they have been able to say 'You know, that focus is not helping so let's look toward the future,' ” she said. “It gives us a united focus. The gains did not happen because of the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind.”
State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson called No Child Left Behind a “universally discredited system” with Program Improvement penalties that are “a broad brush system that doesn't reflect the good work that schools are doing.”
All schools are graded on whether they meet federal targets, but only those that receive federal Title 1 funds meant to assist socio-economically disadvantaged students can be labeled a Program Improvement campus and suffer sanctions that include mandated tutoring programs and the ability of students to transfer elsewhere.
Of the more than 6,200 Title 1-funded schools in California, just 10 percent reached federal proficiency, according to the state Department of Education. Yet among the schools identified as Program Improvement campuses, 30 percent have an API of 800 or higher.
Educators said the system is in a state of flux because of the apparent demise of No Child Left Behind and its melange of penalties for schools and districts that fail to meet academic targets. In its stead comes Common Core and the new “Smarter Balanced” exams.
Even though educators are being instructed to switch their focus to the new curriculum and different assessment system that officially will be in place in the spring of 2015, No Child Left Behind remains the law of the land and its penalties persist.
“It's a very weird time,” Porter said. “Nothing has changed but everything has changed.”
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, 100 percent of students much be proficient or advanced in the core subjects by next spring. The targets for the current round of scores required that about 89 percent of students score proficient or advanced.
A record number 68 schools in Sonoma County failed to meet federal requirements and are now in Program Improvement.
Cinnabar Elementary School in Petaluma was the only school to exit Program Improvement this year after students recorded a 34-point jump in their API.
The 100 percent requirement has long been deemed unrealistic by educators.
“I guess the sad part for me is that teachers feel demoralized, but they are doing such hard work. To make any kind of judgment about a test score is so wrong,” said Barbara Nemko, superintendent of the Napa County Office of Education.
Prior to this year, schools have been “all over the map” with regard to their adoption of Common Core, Nemko said, but that is likely to change this year.
“I think we have determined that we want to move to Common Core. Period,” she said. “That is a problem for (California Standards Tests).”
It's a problem because the penalty system put in place under No Child Left Behind remains in place, despite the dramatic change in what teachers are being asked to teach. And those penalties have wreaked havoc on some schools and districts.
“For us, we still have the Program Improvement title on us even though we have some of the best scores in the county,” said Rincon Valley Superintendent Casey D'Angelo.
Every school in the Rincon Valley District posted scores well above 800 and the districtwide API is 871. Still, the district of 3,300-student district is in Year 3 of Program Improvement for failing to meet federal growth targets.
“It was expected. Do we like it? No,” said Village Charter School Principal Maria McCormick, where the API fell from 893 to 877 — still well above the state goal.
“No one likes to end an era of (standards tests) in Program Improvement, but we are going to focus on what is coming,” she said.
Rincon Valley teachers are working to implement the new Common Core curriculum while continuing to prepare kids on what will appear on the current California Standards Tests, D'Angelo said.
“We are doing double duty,” he said.
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