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Schools receive mixed rankings from test scores

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday January 17, 2002

Berkeley’s public schools had a mixed showing in statewide rankings, based on standardized test scores, released Wednesday by the California Department of Education. 

These rankings are based upon the results of two tests students across the state took last spring. They are the Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition, or SAT-9, and the California Standards Test in English Language Arts, or CST ELA. Both tests’ results are combined in a system called the Academic Performance Index, or API. 

The state released the SAT-9 and CST ELA results in August, but the comparative, API rankings are new. 

Eleven of Berkeley’s 15 schools were in the 50th percentile or higher when compared to schools statewide. But, only one school, John Muir, improved from last year’s ranking. Four schools saw their state rankings decrease. 

Seven of 15 ranked in the 50th percentile or higher, when compared to schools with similar demographic qualities around California. Malcolm X, John Muir, King Middle, Longfellow Middle, and Berkeley High School were all in the 80th percentile or higher. 

But, “similar school” rankings dropped for nine of the 15 schools, and improved for only three. 

The state created pools of “similar schools” by looking at the ethnicity and socioeconomic status of students, the number of credentialed teachers and the average class size, among other things, for each school. 

Jason Lustig, principal at Cragmont, said that similar school rankings provide teachers and administrators with an important sense for where they stand. “This forces schools to step back,” he said. “This forces more reflection.” 

Cragmont School, despite improving its API scores for the third year in a row, and holding steady on its statewide ranking, watched its similar schools ranking declined from the 60th to 70th percentile last year, to the 30th to 40th percentile this year. 

“It’s both disappointing and inspirational,” said Lustig. “That gives us motivation to improve.” 

Lustig said the school will continue to build on its efforts at professional development in math and reading, and integration of technology into the curriculum, in an attempt to boost performance. 

Nancy D. Waters, principal of John Muir School, which was in the 90th to 100th percentile in similar school rankings was pleased, but downplayed the result. 

“It’s wonderful,” she said, “but I do think we need to put it in perspective.” Waters said the test results are just one of many important measures of a school’s success. 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said that testing can provide a useful snapshot of student and teacher performance. But, he emphasized that testing can only go so far in improving that performance. 

“It’s seen as this panacea, as a short-cut to healing all the ills in our schools,” he said, “and it really isn’t.” 

“We have this high stakes mania in the state and around the country,” added Terry Doran, a member of the Board of Education, arguing that standardized testing can encourage instructors to “teach to the test.” 

But Shirley Issel, president of the school board, said the API results can be very helpful for administrators. “It gives us a sense for what best practices are in the district, which is essential information if you’re going to provide guidance and make policy,” she said. 

This year’s API rankings are the first to include the California Standards Test in English Language Arts. Previous rankings have been based only on performance on the SAT-9, a nationwide test. 

California educators have complained for years that the SAT-9 test, as a national exam, does not accurately reflect the state curriculum and standards. The CST ELA test is more closely aligned with California standards, and Berkeley leaders say the new rankings, combining SAT-9 and ELA results, now reflect reality more accurately. 

“It’s much sounder,” said Chris Lim, associate superintendent for instruction. 

But Fike said the addition of the ELA test marks only a small improvement. “It could be considered a step forward, in a sense, but it’s a baby step forward,” he said, arguing that the inclusion of more tests will only eat up more valuable instruction time in the classroom. 

California plans to add several other tests into the API equation in the next two years, including math, history and social science tests in line with the state standards, and the high school exit exam. 

Starting in 2004, students will have to pass the high school exit exam in order to graduate.