API shows schools slipping

API shows schools slipping

Gilroy – As Gilroy schools clung to stay on par with schools
statewide, seven fell behind when compared to similar schools,
according to the Academic Performance Index base report released
Tuesday. But local officials are not concerned.
Gilroy – As Gilroy schools clung to stay on par with schools statewide, seven fell behind when compared to similar schools, according to the Academic Performance Index base report released Tuesday. But local officials are not concerned.

“This is old news,” said Gilroy Superintendent Edwin Diaz. “Students are taking these tests (again) next month. By now, schools already have plans for improvement that they’ve already implemented.”

Diaz is referring to the fact that API scores are based upon tests taken almost a year beforehand, and evaluate a different set of students than those who are in the classroom now. For example, the current third-grade students at Glen View Elementary took tests last spring that will be used to judge current second-grade students’ progress next school year. In essence, the API is a one-two punch that comes a little late in the game.

But API rankings should not be shrugged off.

“API is one indicator as to how our schools are doing,” Diaz said. “But it’s a snapshot. It’s not perfect, but you do need an accountability system.”

Accountability is the reason the API, first used in 1999, was factored by California lawmakers into the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 – to ensure that schools throughout the state continue to improve. Sanctions are imposed if schools fail to improve after two consecutive years. No schools in Gilroy will be sanctioned.

Imagine a line of progress beginning at 200 and ending at 1000, with the higher value signifying the best. Now draw a red line at 800. All that precedes that mark is considered below standard. That mark is where the state expects schools to be, and only one school in Gilroy Unified School District met the state-set target.

After receiving an API score calculated from data first released each fall in the Standardized Testing And Reporting (STAR) program and the California High School Exit Exam, schools are ranked on a scale from one to 10 in statewide comparisons and among 100 other similar schools. Despite the fact that six schools maintained their status quo and Antonio Del Buono Elementary and Rod Kelley Elementary improved their statewide ranks, seven fell in rank when compared to schools similar in demographic composition and size. This trend could reflect either a stagnant period of improvement in Gilroy schools or an unequal grouping of the so-called similar schools, school officials said.

“Similar is very relative,” said Eliot Elementary School Principal Diane Elia. “We have a school that is really unique. I doubt that right now there are any schools quite like ours.”

The school remained ranked as a three in statewide comparisons and a two in the similar schools category. Every year the 100 comparison schools change, making it difficult to track a school’s rank with the same grouping for a long period of time.

Eliot has undergone a severe change in its demographic make up over the past five years since the API began.

“When we started, we had 6 percent English as a Second Language students,” Elia said. “This year we have 58 percent. We’ve had huge changes in this school.” In just one year, the school has added 70 new students, most considered ESL students she said.

“When we are a totally neighborhood school, then I think we can compare to other schools,” Elia said. “Someday, but not right now.”

Gilroy High School Principal Bob Bravo was also dissatisfied with the similar school ranking system.

“The group of 100 (comparison schools) change,” he said. “A lot of them are actually very dissimilar.”

However, Bravo does approve of the API testing on a whole.

“The API is a useful tool for what it is supposed to do,” he said. “That said, with all its limitations, there are schools within the schools – subcultures that call have a different ranking.”

GHS is considered average, a five, when compared statewide, and reflects a problem nationwide: High schools are slower to improve than either middle or elementary schools. Currently, only 7 percent of high schools perform at the state-recommended level.

“For those people who specialize in education reform, high school performance is the universal tough nut to crack,” Bravo said.

The reason may be because high schools are generally larger, with less faculty-to-student interaction to keep students from falling into the cracks and left behind. Bravo believes it becomes increasingly difficult to move a high school over the bar, when it has had years of low performance pulling it down.

“The best thing we could ever quantify would also be the hardest – tracking how students do in post-secondary education,” Bravo said. “Putting a diploma in someone’s hand is one thing, but to give them the necessary skills to persist afterwards is another.”

A separate problem with the API rankings is associating schools with a number. What does it mean to be attending a school that is a three, a seven, a five?

“There is a stigma attached,” Diaz said. “No one wants to be in the bottom decile.”

When evaluating API scores, what is important to remember is that “there will always be a school in the top 10 percent and lower 10 percent,” State Superintendent Jack O’Connell said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday. “That’s how the decile system works. Even schools in the lowest decile are much improved over five years ago.”

In 2000, two Gilroy schools were ranked in the lowest 10 percent. And since 2003, no school has.

Instead of focusing on a number, O’Connell suggests focusing on one thing: “Are our schools improving?”

In the case of the Gilroy Unified School District, the answer is a slow, but steady yes.

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