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Test Scores Show Student Improvement, But Not Enough: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday September 03, 2004

Willard Middle School appears headed towards a distinction it could do without: the fourth school in Berkeley to run afoul of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law. 

District officials said Wednesday that after failing to meet federal achievement standards two years running, Willard will probably have to draft an improvement plan, offer students the chance to transfer, and provide extra funding for staff development. 

When a school enters program improvement status, it means that the district must evaluate the school’s teaching and administration practices and devise a program to raise student performance to avoid further penalties. If the school continues to fail for five consecutive years the district could face a state take-over of the school. 

“It doesn’t look too good [for Willard],” said District Curriculum Director Neil Smith, who wouldn’t confirm that the school would enter year one of federally-mandated “program improvement” until he received official word from state education authorities. 

Three elementary schools already penalized under the federal testing regime also received failing marks and face more severe consequences than Willard. Cragmont Elementary, now in year two of program improvement status, must continue working on its improvement plan and provide supplemental services to eligible students. Washington, now in year three, will likely need to revamp its curriculum, but could face a staff overhaul or outside takeover. Rosa Parks Elementary, now in year four, underwent a massive staff overhaul by the district last spring. 

News that nearly one-third of its schools might now be labeled failing underscored a disappointing performance by Berkeley students on the California Standards Test, released Tuesday by the California Board of Education.  

While Berkeley still bested the average district scores in the county and state, the gap is closing. On the state’s Academic Performance Index (API) which grades schools and districts on a scale of 1-to-1000, Berkeley Unified scored 731, the same as last year. Meanwhile, across the county, scores rose 11 points to 724 and statewide scores jumped 10 points to 693.  

However, the state’s academic indicators mean little under the more punitive system established by No Child Left Behind. While the state system measures progress based on improvement by all students from one year to the next, the federal law instead bases a school’s success on the percentage of students who meet proficiency standards in math and English. 

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that repeatedly fail to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) face increasingly strict reform. Subpar participation in testing or a failure by poor students, English learners or any statistically significant racial group to reach performance goals prevents a school from making AYP under the law. 

To actually face punishment, however, a school must receive federal Title 1 money doled out to schools with high percentages of poor children and fail in the same area two years in a row. All Berkeley elementary and middle schools receive some form of Title I assistance. 

Different measures of performance for state and federal testing systems can lead to mixed messages about Berkeley schools. Cragmont, for instance, saw its API increase from 743 to 787—the fifth highest score among district elementary schools. That wasn’t enough, however, to keep the school from advancing to year two in program improvement under No Child Left Behind. 

Cragmont—one of just two schools in the district to have five statistically significant ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups—failed to meet English standards for its English learners population. Only 13.2 percent (seven out of 53) scored proficient or above.  

Required proficiency thresholds for students in elementary and middle schools are 13.6 percent for English and 16 percent for math. The thresholds must increase gradually until 2014 when all students must test proficient. 

“We’re a little frustrated,” said Cragmont Principal Jason Lustig. “We figure if we keep improving we won’t have problems.” 

The other Berkeley schools penalized under federal law had less of a silver lining. Washington, which like Cragmont failed the test last year based only on its participation rate, backslid this year. Only nine percent of African Americans and 11.2 percent of socio-economically disadvantaged students at the school scored proficient in English. 

Rosa Parks improved 13 points to 666 on the state measure, but failed to reach proficiency levels for five subgroups of students. African American students, as a group, and socio-economically disadvantaged students, as a group, failed to meet the math requirement and Latino, English learners and socio-economically disadvantaged students failed, as groups, to meet set thresholds on the English test. 

All three middle schools improved their overall state scores, but for the second straight year they saw African American students, as a group, performed dismally in math.  

At Willard, eight percent of African American students (19 out of 235) scored proficient. At King 14.7 percent were proficient and at Longfellow 15.4 percent met federal standards. Both schools managed to avoid Willard’s apparent fate because the socio-economically disadvantaged students at those schools met set goals on the tests. Just 12.9 percent of socio-economically disadvantaged students at Willard scored proficient on math, the second consecutive year the subgroup failed the test.  

Scores at Berkeley High dropped 16 points to 709 on the state performance index. 

Other disappointments for the district included LeConte and Oxford elementary schools, both of which saw their state scores plummet by more than 30 points. Poor students at LeConte failed to reach proficiency in English, putting the school at risk of entering program improvement status if it suffers a repeat performance next year. 

Oxford, which last year boasted the highest overall score in the district, this year claimed the title of biggest achievement gap between African American and white students. Eighty-one percent of whites were proficient on English and 79 percent on math, compared to 15 percent and 20 percent for African Americans.  

Smith noted that over the past five years Berkeley’s API scores have risen steadily and played down the significance year-to-year fluctuations. “Especially in the smaller elementary schools 25 percent of students tested are different from the year before. That’s a significant chunk,” he said. 

On the brighter side, Thousand Oaks Elementary—Berkeley’s other school with five statistically significant subgroups—passed with flying colors and raised its state ranking 37 points to 769. Jefferson Elementary improved its state score 45 points to 845, the highest tally in the district. 

Berkeley also appears to have dodged the attendance bullet. After 12 of its 16 schools failed to meet the 95 percent participation threshold last year in all of their subgroups, this year only seven schools failed on participation and none appeared to have been thrust into program improvement status for a participation violation.