September 11, 2008

API Results Show Mixed Picture for East County Schools

By Rowena Coetsee

Two schools in Antioch Unified School District consistently have failed to meet federal benchmarks put in place five years ago, while a third school met them for the first time this past year.

Marsh and Fremont elementary schools along with Antioch Middle School are in their fifth year as "program improvement" schools, a label identifying those that don't meet academic standards the federal No Child Left Behind Act established in 2001.

Three other schools also have PI status but haven't been in that situation as long.

The findings are contained in a report the California Department of Education recently released detailing how successful the state's schools were over the past year producing students who are proficient in English and mathematics.

The mass of data from the Academic Performance Index tests shows whether schools and school districts met not only California's minimum academic standards but those the federal legislation established as well.

NCLB, as it is known, requires schools to achieve goals that become progressively more difficult until every student regardless of race, socioeconomic status or native tongue is proficient in English and math by 2013-14.

More specifically, whether schools make this so-called Adequate Yearly Progress depends on their performance in four areas: the percentage of students who take statewide tests, how many of them score at a proficient level or higher in English and math, and whether their collective performance either meets the state's target or has increased by an acceptable margin. In addition, high schools are judged on their graduation rate.

Those that fall short of the mark in these areas two years in a row are designated "program improvement" schools and must start making changes that become more extreme as time passes. Those include allowing students to transfer to non-PI schools and restructuring administration of the school, possibly by turning it over to a private company to run or sharing governance with another government agency, said Laura Wagner, administrator of the state Department of Education's Intervention Assistance Office.

To shed their label, PI schools have to satisfy the criteria on all four fronts for two consecutive years.

Antioch Middle School is on its way to doing that: In 2007-08, students of all races and income levels as well as those for whom English is not their native language demonstrated on state tests that they were proficient in both English and math.

What's more, the school posted a 30-point gain on the scale the state uses to measure test performance, considerably more than the eight-point improvement it was supposed to make.

If Antioch Middle School can repeat that performance this year, the school will be back on track.

Other Antioch schools continue to struggle, however. Antioch High School is in its second year as a Program Improvement school, Park Middle School is in its third, and Turner Elementary in its fourth.

In an attempt to turn that around, the district's new director of English Language Learners will meet with teachers to come up with more effective ways of reaching students who are non-native English speakers, said Donald Gill, director of curriculum.

As it is, for the past two years teachers at all schools in the district have been spending 30 minutes a day giving those young people extra help mastering English, and last year a team of district administrators began visiting each classroom at every PI school to offer a fresh perspective on how those teachers could do better.

Antioch Unified also has assigned six teachers who have been trained to serve as full-time coaches at each of its PI schools, said Director of Assessment Mary McCarthy. They'll help their peers tweak lessons, critique their teaching style and possibly give a classroom demonstration themselves, she said.

In addition, McCarthy has given every teacher a report of how each of their students did on last year's state tests, information so detailed that instructors can see which concepts within a subject students are having trouble grasping.

Other schools are in danger of acquiring PI status.

That's the case with Antioch's Belshaw, Mission and Kimball elementary schools, as well as Marsh Creek and Garin elementary schools in Brentwood, all of which will become Program Improvement schools in 2009-10 if they don't meet all federal standards over the course of this next year.

The same is true for Knightsen Elementary School and Oakley's Iron House and Gehringer elementary schools.

Freedom High in Liberty Union High School District is also under the gun after coming up short this past year.

But Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Mary Vinciguerra emphasizes that NCLB's litmus tests for determining success place less importance on how much a school's test scores improve from year to year -- the essence of California's API numeric scale -- and more on whether it has met or missed the three other criteria.

"AYP is pretty severe. You either make it or you don't," she said.

Vinciguerra noted that under the federal accountability system, it's not enough for a school's students to do well overall; each of its racial and income groups also must meet the federal target for test participation rates and percentage of young people who score proficient.

"If you miss just one (of these criteria), you don't make AYP no matter how well you do on all the others," she said.

Yes, Freedom High didn't make what the federal government considers adequate yearly progress, yet the district's API jumped by a whopping 33 points in 2007-08, Vinciguerra said.

That means more teens moved from an inadequate grasp of English, math, history and science to a level that's considered proficient or advanced, she said.

Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141 or [email protected]

Originally published by Rowena Coetsee, Brentwood News.

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