Upper grades hit high notes on exams

Teachers at San Mateo County high schools and middle schools have reason to be proud: 41 percent of high schools and 48 percent of middle schools on the Peninsula hit the state’s annual assessment target in 2007.

Since 1999, California schools have been required to increase scores on a number of state tests each year. The state Department of Education measures their progress through a ranking system called the California Academic Performance Index.

Schools and districts are given a score between a low of 200 and a high of 1,000. The benchmark score is 800. All schools are mandated to improve each year.

The 2007 API scores, released Wednesday, showed that 41 percent of the county’s high schools met that benchmark of 800 — up from just 8 percent of high schools in 2006, said Peter Burchyns, a senior administrator at the San Mateo Office of Education.

The county far exceeded the statewide average of 15 percent.

Middle schools also saw big gains, as 48 percent reached the target. Last year, only 34 percent of middle schools reached the standard.

The state average for middle schools is 25 percent.

And, for the first time, more than half of the county’s elementary schools — 51 percent — reached the target of 800, compared with 37 percent statewide. Last year, 49 percent reached the target.

Though much of those gains can be attributed to pointed efforts at the district level, a few countywide programs may also have made a difference, Burchyns said.

One such program is the free Preschool for All, which the county has expanded in recent years, he said. Many of the participants at the school are low-income or English-learning children, who tend to score lower on tests.

The county education office has also expanded a program that trains and supports new teachers.

Nationwide, there tend to be more new teachers at underperforming schools, and giving those teachers more support and training has proven helpful in retaining them, Burchyns said.

Notable among the county’s high schools was Pacifica’s Oceana High School, which performed poorly last year, sliding 34 points. But this year it gained back all that ground and more, increasing its score 44 points to 756.

Rick Boitano, associate superintendent of Jefferson Union High School District, said Oceana’s staff and students sat up and paid attention when its scores dropped so precipitously last year. The school had been restructured several years ago.

“There was a lot of soul-searching that was done at the school — I think they were shocked by the outcomes [last year], and they put a great deal of effort into this last round of assessment,” he said. “They improved dramatically.”

Schools scrutinized by state make major gains

Several of the county’s schools with the most dramatic growth in API scores this year are in fact schools that have faltered in the past.

Four out of the five biggest gainers in this year’s release of the California Academic Performance Index were schools that in years past failed to make adequate yearly progress and were required to adjust curriculum.

Two such schools, Fair Oaks Elementary and Taft Elementary of Redwood City, are each in their fifth year of “program improvement,” a status that is assigned by the state when schools don’t improve their scores for more than two years in a row.

This year, however, each saw scores increase at least 50 points — an increase that Redwood City School District Superintendent Jan Christensen attributes in part to a new testing program at the schools.

Each of the two schools has begun testing every student three times a year, to determine their weaknesses and learn whether certain subjects need to be taught again.

College Park Elementary, a school in the San Mateo-Foster City School District, was restructured after it failed to make progress for several years. This year, it jumped 75 points, from 673 to 748. In total, its score has risen by almost 200 points during the past three years.

Irving Phillips, the school’s director of magnet programs, said teacher training has been a key to improvement, as well as having the principal meet with each student to map out what their individual goals would be.


The ABCs of the API

How the state calculates the numbers

The Academic Performance Index, or API, is the state’s primary measurement of student achievement and is used to set measurable goals for student test performance improvement from year to year.

API rankings are calculated per school, based on the students’ collective performance on several tests. Schools are ranked between a low of 200 and a high of 1,000; the statewide performance target is 800.

Schools are given “growth targets” each year, 5 percent of the difference between a school’s current API “base” and the statewide target of 800.

For example, if a school has an API base of 500, then its growth target for the next year will be 15 points higher, or 5 percent of 300.

The API score summarizes the results of several statewide tests that cover English and mathematics in grades two through 11, and history and science in the secondary grades.

— Staff report

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