School gains still mostly illusory 

The 2006 results of the California Academic Performance Index have just been released and the good news is that 27 percent of the state’s 8,851 schools attained the basic "success" score of 800. That is a rise of 2.5 percent, so at least the schools didn’t go backward.

The Bay Area tallied more gains than losses, although overall outcomes were mixed. San Francisco had 78 of its 116 public schools improving their API scores, while another 22 did poorly enough to drop into the statewide bottom 10 percent.

In San Mateo County, nearly half the schools earned 800 or better, with 114 schools improving while 35 posted lower scores. North Star Academy in Redwood City joined California’s Top 25 schools; with an API score only 15 points below the 1,000 maximum.

But the bad news is that this good news is generally meaningless. Upon closer examination, the small incremental improvements serve primarily to deflect attention from the inadequacies of what is essentially a failing educational system.

Less than one-third of California schools even achieved the official target score of 800 — which is actually 75 points below the true grade-level proficiency score of 875. Academic Performance Index 5 percent "growth" targets are so low that any of the 3,423 California schools with a starting score below 635 could reach the required improvement every year for 61 years before every student attained grade-level proficiency.

California’s white students ranked 15th from the bottom in national testing, as did California children of college graduates when ranked nationally against their peers. School districts with a heavy enrollment of low-income, non-English-speaking, African-American or Hispanic students test particularly low. Oakland’s district-wide API is only 651.

The complex formula of the Academic Performance Index only measures schoolwide achievement. If enough higher-performing students push a school’s average score above the undemanding API benchmarks, that school appears to be doing well even if its lower-performing students don’t learn anything.

In contrast, the easy-to-understand California Standards Test just measures whether individual students learned English and mathematics at grade level. That test can show whether significant progress is being made by all racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups at the school.

At least when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell trumpeted this week’s supposedly positive API results, he promised some improvements in measurement methods. The California Standards Test made its debut appearance among API assessments, used for science scoring in grades eight and 10. This year for the first time, the state Board of Education will require schools to hold all student subgroups to the same improvement targets. And the pointless 800 minimum API score is to be raised in the near future.

These changes are a small step in the right direction, though obviously there is a long way to go.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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