San Francisco schools improve test scores, but fall short of federal goals

Although most California schools posted gains on standardized tests this year, federal law requires the majority to be labeled as failing, according to data released Wednesday by the California Department of Education.

It is a contradiction that has California education officials beseeching Washington for a waiver from the controversial No Child Left Behind law.

“Schools like that, that are moving in the right direction, it’s just plain wrong for the federal government to have a system that labels them failing,” state schools chief Tom Torlakson said.

In the San Francisco Unified School District, three-quarters of schools showed steady improvement on state measures, with half earning 800 points or more on the Academic Performance Index. SFUSD’s districtwide score was a respectable 796, just four points shy of the state’s goal.

Under the federal law, however, 80 percent of those schools didn’t make adequate progress, and the district as a whole fell short. While the state’s system rewards improvement on standardized tests, No Child Left Behind requires schools and districts to achieve set goals. Every group of students — including minorities, English language learners — and students from low-income families, must meet the same targets. And if any one group does not, the whole school or district fails.

SFUSD met federal targets for white and Asian students’ test scores, but not enough black, Hispanic, English-language learner, special-education or low-income students passed the math and English exams. 

Torlakson said the state test has more validity. In announcing results, he chose to focus on those numbers.

“We’re celebrating today the progress of California schools and students,” he said.

But while officials cheered the state results, it is the federal ones that really matter. Schools receiving federal funding for needy students face serious consequences if they don’t make progress for three years in a row. With federal money at stake, districts may be forced to replace teachers, turn schools over to the state or close them entirely. 

By 2014, No Child Left Behind requires 100 percent of students to pass math and reading tests. While this year’s goal was a pass rate of 67 percent for unified districts, that will move upward.

“There’s a sharp swing, this arbitrary upward climb to 100 percent,” Torlakson said, describing a graph of the goals over time. “No way could that steep line … ever be achieved.”

Torlakson said he had yet to receive a federal reply about the state’s request for a waiver.


Different standards

State goal: An academic performance index of 800

Schools that met it


Elementaries: 58%

Middle schools: 44%

High schools: 11%


Elementaries: 55%

Middle schools: 43%

High schools: 28%

Federal goal: Two-thirds of students in each group passing math and reading exams

Schools that met it


Elementaries: 29%

Middle schools:  6%

High schools: 5%


Elementaries: 35%

Middle schools: 18%

High schools: 41%


Report card

SFUSD schools posted a wide range of scores on the state’s Academic Performance Index, which runs from 200 to 1,000 points.



Alice Fong Yu    955

Clarendon Alternative    945


Charles Drew    609

Middle Schools


AP Giannini    882

KIPP Bayview (charter)    867


Willie Brown (since closed)    494

High Schools


Lowell    951

Ruth Asawa    808


June Jordan    542

Source: California Department of Education

We interviewed every candidate in S.F.’s assembly race. Here’s where they stand on key issues

Hopefuls air their positions on housing, homelessness, COVID, transportation, crime and climate change

San Francisco’s mask rules are changing again

Vaccinated residents will be allowed to forego face coverings in certain settings

Opinion: Owner of famed sandwich shop says S.F. is so broken it needs Batman

The Deli Board’s Adam Mesnick is sick and tired of SoMa crime