Examiner Editorial: Schools’ future depends on tests

The 2008 editions of the federal Adequate Yearly Progress school scores and California’s Academic Performance Index arrived Thursday, and together they delivered the usual mixed bag of mostly discouraging news.

Of course, the big elephant in the room is that no matter how annual scores are sliced and diced, there is no disguising that roughly half the state’s students are still not learning English and mathematics at the correct grade level — with blacks and Hispanics still testing measurably lower than whites and Asians.

With this major education failure on the table, it becomes less reassuring if Bay Area schools continue making small but steady progress each year and score higher than statewide averages. Unfortunately, we cannot even fully console ourselves with that interpretation this year. According to federal No Child Left Behind standards, 1,400 more California schools failed to make adequate yearly progress — a 14-point decline to 53 percent.

Under federal test scoring, only half the schools in the San Francisco Unified School District showed adequate yearly progress. Yet, under the state’s rankings, San Francisco scores consistently improved for the last seven years and 40 percent of district schools exceed California’s 800-point target, besting the 36 percent statewide average.

Meanwhile, San Mateo County school scores, long comfortably ahead of statewide averages, have been virtually stagnant for the last three years while the rest of California’s schools narrow the gap. Only 61 percent of the 177 Peninsula schools attained adequate 2008 federal progress goals, down from 76 percent last year.

This confusing federal-state discrepancy happens because Washington, D.C., each year requires a higher percentage of students to test at grade proficiency. The 2008 minimum rose from approximately 25 percent to 35 percent. Federal standards for adequate progress also are stricter because they require every ethnic and socioeconomic subgroup within the school — including special-
education students — to achieve the proficiency benchmark. No Child Left Behind is supposed to culminate with every American public school student learning at grade level by 2014.

Educators nationwide complain that while the goal of Adequate Yearly Progress is admirable, its congressionally imposed timetable is impossible. On the other hand, the convoluted weighting formula for California’s Academic Performance Index is widely criticized as too lenient.

The Examiner suspects both opposing critiques have some validity. The federal law is awaiting renewal and will probably be fine-tuned in 2009 by whichever new administration takes office. Hopefully the update makes the regulations more realistic and provides adequate funding to fulfill federal demands. And hopefully California will finally stop tiptoeing around its education problems and show some of its traditional bold originality.

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