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Calif. K-12 Schools Make Gains But Some May Face Sanctions

SAN FRANCISCO — California schools posted gains on standardized tests for the ninth consecutive year, even as nearly 4,000 campuses face possible sanctions for failing to reach rising federal requirements, the state Department of Education said last week.

A record 49 percent of public schools met or surpassed the state target score of 800 on the 1,000-point Academic Performance Index, or API, up from 46 percent in 2010 and 36 percent in 2009, according to the department’s Accountability Progress Report.

The closely watched API is calculated from results of various standardized tests in math, English and other subjects to give educators, parents and policymakers an easy way to evaluate individual schools as well as the state school system as a whole.

The latest results show the 800-point target was met by 55 percent of elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools and 28 percent of high schools, the department said.

“At school after school, and among every significant ethnic group, California’s students are performing better than ever,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. “Even in the face of severe cuts to school funding.”

The statewide average API score rose 11 points to 778, with all racial groups making academic gains. But the results showed a continuing achievement gap between students of different races. Average API scores were 696 for Blacks, 729 for Latinos, 845 for Whites and 898 for Asians.

State education officials said 913 more schools could be labeled as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law for not meeting targets that rise each year. The Bush-era law requires each state to improve student performance on its own standardized tests annually.

California now has 3,892 schools that are required to take corrective action ranging from increasing teacher training to replacing school staff or lose federal education funding.

The Obama administration has made repeated calls to reform the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which requires every student to be proficient in science and math by 2014, but so far Congress has failed to take up the issue.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that states could apply for waivers if they agree to education reforms such as tougher evaluation systems for teachers and more programs to help minority students.

“Everyone knows (No Child Left Behind) is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Justin Hamilton, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. “We’ll be using the authority Congress gave us to offer states flexibility from NCLB in exchange for reforms that drive student achievement.”

Torlakson recently sent a letter to Duncan requesting a waiver for California, but he and other school officials asked that states not be “held hostage to new and under-funded policy requirements.”

Torlakson said he has not heard back from Duncan on California’s waiver request.

“We’ve got to get a waiver that will allow us relief from this. We’ve got to get it right away without any requirements or expectations,” said Bill Habermehl, superintendent of schools for Orange County. “It’s just unrealistic.”

Arun Ramanathan, who heads the advocacy group Education Trust-West, said state education officials should focus more attention and resources on improving the academic performance of Black, Latino and low-income students.

“Instead of asking for freedom from accountability, our leaders should be championing the high-impact reforms that will close the achievement and opportunity gaps that prevent so many students from achieving their college and career dreams,” Ramanathan said.

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