Schools rejoicing at academic gains

By Jennifer Kerr The Associated Press
Thursday October 05, 2000

SACRAMENTO — More than two-thirds of California public schools, including some of last year’s lowest-scoring rural schools, improved enough to share in $677 million in state rewards, test score rankings released Wednesday show. 

The state Department of Education released the 2000 Academic Performance Index numbers for 6,209 schools and calculated how much they rose since 1999. 

State Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin said Wednesday that the department expected about 60 percent of schools to improve and she was thrilled that the percentage was above that mark. 

“I’m here to tell you we’re doing very well,” she said at a press conference at Bannon Creek Elementary School in Sacramento. “This is a long process. We haven’t fixed everything in public education in the last few years. But we have made very fine progress.” 

The number that improved their scores enough to claim rewards as high as $25,000 per teacher surprised even Gov. Gray Davis, who made the incentives part of his school-improvement crusade. 

“I frankly did not expect 70 percent of schools to rise and meet the challenge, but that’s what happened,” he said Tuesday in a telephone conference with reporters. “I could not be happier.” 

The department said 4,180 schools are eligible for the reward system created by Davis and the Legislature to boost test scores that lagged behind the nation in nearly all grades and subjects. 

The department will further check their eligibility between now and January, when checks are expected to go out. 

The Academic Performance Index or API is based on a school’s Standardized Testing and Reporting exam scores. It ranges from a low of 200 to a high of 1000. Davis wants all schools to hit at least 800. 

The 1999 API was the baseline for measuring growth. Each school’s goal was 5 percent of the difference between its 1999 API and 800. Those already over 800 had to increase at least one point. 

All schools that met their growth targets will share in $577 million in rewards. The schools will get more than $150 per student to be used as the school site committee determines; all staff at the school will also get an estimated $800 per employee. 

The state will dedicate $100 million for the biggest individual bonuses, $5,000 to $25,000 for about 12,250 teachers and principals in schools in the bottom half of the state whose APIs went up the most. 

Elementary schools had the greatest growth, with 131 of them increasing their APIs by 100 points or more, according to a computer-assisted analysis by The Associated Press. 

At the top of the list is Lincoln Elementary, a kindergarten-through-second-grade school in the Exeter Union District in rural Tulare County, which went up 189 points from 504 to 693. 

The school’s three-dozen teachers are cautiously excited about the possibility of getting the top bonuses of $25,000 each, said principal Miriam Smith. 

The school would use its share to buy additional computer programs, Smith said. 

The new scores are particularly sweet for the second top-improving school, Saul Martinez Elementary in Mecca, a small farming community of migrant workers in the Coachella Valley Unified School District south of Indio. 

Last year, Martinez had the state’s lowest API at 302. This year, it went up 188 points to 490. 

“I’m so thrilled for my community and my kids,” said Martinez Principal Paula Thayer. “It was devastating for us last year to be labeled the lowest-performing school in California.” 

One reason for the improvement was the decision by parents of half the students eligible for testing in the kindergarten-through-third-grade school to not have their Spanish-speaking children take the test, said Martha Tureen, assistant superintendent for Coachella Valley. 

The school would still be eligible for awards, because the state Board of Education decided that test waivers by parents would not count against the required test participation rate of 95 percent. 

The top-improving high school was rural Tulare Union High School, where the API rose 90 points to 644. 

“I feel great,” said Gerald Benton, superintendent of the Tulare Joint Union High School District. 

The 2000 APIs range from a low of 346 for Verde Elementary in West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond to a high of 969 for Gretchen Whitney High School in the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos in Los Angeles County, which was also the highest for 1999. The median of the scores released Wednesday was 667. 

The entire range of scores rose this year. In 1999, Whitney’s high score was 966, while Martinez was the lowest at 302. The 1999 median was 627. 

However, not all schools increased their APIs. The 936 schools in the bottom half of the state that did not meet goals can apply to be in Davis’ second three-year school improvement program.