YUBA CITY – Everyone was ecstatic a year ago when test scores soared at April Lane Elementary, one of 430 schools in the first group going through Gov. Gray Davis’ three-year improvement program.
This summer, however, scores are flat and morale is down as the school begins its crucial third year.
“I feel disappointed,” said teacher Clarence Craft, reading about “Clyde Monster” to first- and second-graders in summer school. “To go up that much, I wanted to go up again. Taking a step back is not going forward.”
April Lane and the other 429 schools face dire consequences a year from now if they don’t meet their improvement goals: takeover by the state and possible closing of the school.
April Lane is not the only school sweating this new school year. An Associated Press analysis of test scores released last week shows nearly half of the 430 schools saw reading and math test scores drop or stay the same.
Unless they do better this year, they could be facing the serious sanctions just when Davis is running for his second term and is under political pressure. The Democratic governor has made improvement in test scores a central part of his first term; the improvement program was a key part of the school package he pushed through the Legislature in his first few months in office.
The 430 schools won’t know for sure if they met this year’s 5 percent growth goal until their Academic Performance Index numbers are calculated by the state in October. The complicated API formula is based on the Standardized Testing and Reporting exam or STAR test.
However, 132 of the 291 elementary schools in the program, or 45 percent, saw the percentage of second-graders who scored at or above the national average in reading drop or stay the same.
And 34 of the 52 high schools, or 65 percent, had 11th-grade math scores fall or stay the same.
“It’s never encouraging when scores go down, but the schools didn’t get to where they are overnight. It’s going to take time for them to come back,” says Daniel Chernow, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles, School Management Program, which has been advising 50 schools in the program.
Moreover, it’s problematic to judge schools on year-to-year test score changes because such numbers are very volatile due to the small sample of students in a school and one-time factors such as illness or a distracting barking dog, says Thomas Kane, professor of policy studies and economics at UCLA, who has studied test scores in North Carolina and California.
“Even if a school is making steady progress, it may not be reflected in test scores every single year,” he said.
The 430 schools chosen for the first group in October 1999 all had test scores in the bottom half of the state. They spent their first year planning how to improve and put those plans into effect last year, using state grants that will continue this year.
Some of the schools chose structured outside programs, such as Success for All or Ventures Education Systems. Others put together highly individualistic plans with the common threads of heavy reading, test practicing, teacher training and parent involvement.
April Lane is trying those common threads, with mixed success over the past two years.
When it started the program in 1999, its base API was 554, in the lowest 40 percent of state schools. Its 2000 test scores were spectacular, even though the plan was just being written that year. Its target was a 12-point increase, but its API jumped to 671, qualifying the school and its teachers for some of the $677 million in rewards offered by Davis.
However, its 2001 test scores are less encouraging. Scores went up in eight of the 16 grade and subject measurements but down by the same total percentage points in the other eight.
Principal Craig Guensler says he thinks April Lane will not meet its goal of increasing six points in the 2001 API to be released in October.
He partially blames the huge number of changes in the school over the past year — a new reading program, a switch from year-round to traditional calendar and a less-than-successful parent liaison experiment.
The school decided to use Open Court Reading, a very structured phonics-based program by SRA-McGraw-Hill that has greatly improved test scores in many districts. It also chose the company’s math program, Math Explorations and Applications.
The Open Court books weren’t received until last January, so teachers just used them as supplements last year, he said. Teachers are getting intensive training in Open Court this week, just before school starts on Thursday.
The “Clyde Monster” story that Craft was reading to his summer-school students is in an Open Court book. He thinks the program looks good and thinks it should improve test scores.
The switch from a four-track year-round school to a traditional schedule is a big change, one that is disruptive now, but should help the school in the long run, says principal Guensler. Schools on multitrack year-round schedules have troubles with teacher training and communication, since the full faculty is never present at the same time.
April Lane will also be able to do its STAR testing at one time, instead of spreading it over four tracks over several months, he said.
The school’s effort to improve parent participation by hiring a parent liaison to encourage involvement didn’t work as planned last year. The woman hired for the job quit after five months because of conflicts with her other job that changed from part-time to full-time. Guensler will be hiring a new liaison this fall.
The school has had trouble getting parents involved, the principal believes, because they don’t realize what a difference they can make and “some people seem to be afraid to come to a school.”
With its new calendar, April Lane was able to hold its first summer school, for 155 children identified by teachers as needing extra help. They spent four hours a day on reading and two on math during the four-week program.
The school might offer more after-school classes during the year to further help kids who are behind, the principal said.
“We should see a significant gain next year,” predicts Guensler.
Kindergarten teacher Marilyn Sensney says the state test puts a lot of pressure on the teachers and the students.
“It’s all based on test scores, because you’re under the gun if you don’t improve,” she said.
Schools in the program are not really competing against each other, but against themselves to improve by 5 percent, says state Department of Education spokesman Doug Stone.
“What we’re asking for is a realistic goal,” he said.
Not going as planned
Here are some Standardized Testing and Reporting exam or STAR test results for schools in the governor’s three-year improvement program. Scores in reading and math are the percentages of students scoring at or above the national average:
FIRST GROUP of 430 SCHOOLS (Started program in 1999)
• Second grade: 132 of 291 schools, or 45 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range comparing 2000 score to 2001 is a decline of 35 percentage points to an increase of 41. Median is a gain of 2.
• Fourth grade: 115 of 288 schools, or 40 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 25 to an increase of 28. Median is a gain of 2.
• Eighth grade: 41 of 98 schools, or 42 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 27 to an increase of 28. Median is a gain of 2.
• 11th grade: 26 of 52 schools, or 50 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 13 to an increase of 16. Median is a gain of .5.
• Second grade: 124 of 291 schools, or 43 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 45 to an increase of 39. Median is a drop of 9.
• Fourth grade: 107 of 288 schools, or 37 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 40 to an increase of 43. Median is a gain of 3.
• Eighth grade: 60 of 98 schools, or 61 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 42 to an increase of 61. Median is a drop of 1.
• 11th grade: 34 of 52 schools, or 65 percent, declined or stayed the same. Range is a decline of 18 to an increase of 14. Median is a drop of 3.5.
ENGLISH-LANGUAGE ARTS STANDARDS
• Fourth grade: Students proficient or above in the standards-based questions ranged from 58 percent to none. The median is 15.
• Eighth grade: Range is 62 percent to none. Median is 17.
• 11th grade: Range is 31 percent to 5 percent. Median is 19.
SECOND GROUP of 430 SCHOOLS (Started in 2000)
• Fourth grade: 76 of 245 schools declined or stayed the same. Median is a gain of 4.
• Eighth grade: 51 or 116 schools declined or stayed the same. Median is a gain of 1.
• 11th grade: 33 of 71 schools declined or stayed the same. Median is a gain of 1.
Source: Associated Press analysis of STAR test data from state Department of Education. Number of schools is greater than 430 because both elementary and middle schools can have eighth grades.