Santa Barbara News-Press, 3/16/05

McKinley stands out in state test scores


Statewide standardized test scores released Tuesday showed Santa Barbara schools generally posting gains, with McKinley Elementary School making the biggest jump in Santa Barbara County.


The latest release of statewide test scores is based on a battery of exams taken during an eight-day period in May by students in grades two through 11. The students are tested in their knowledge of the state standards and national standards. High school students also take the high school exit exam.

To measure the success of an entire school, the test scores for each student are compiled into a single score, between 200 and 1,000, called the academic performance index, or API. This can be done for entire districts, as well.

The API score is then used to assign each school 1-through-10 rankings measuring their performance against schools with similar demographics and against all schools statewide.

When compared with schools most similar to it in the state, McKinley leapt from a 4 to a 10 -- meaning it went from the top 60 percent to the more select top 10 percent.

"We are just thrilled," Principal Juanita Carney said. "I announced it to the whole school (over the intercom) this morning."

Oddly, the good news comes several months after the school was sanctioned by the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act. The school, whose enrollment is more than 90 percent Latino, was punished this fall because one of its subgroups -- students with disabilities -- failed to meet minimum test score requirements.

"I'm sure it's totally confusing," Ms. Carney said.

The major difference between the state and federal systems is that the state looks for improvement, while the federal system requires that all schools clear the same hurdle.

As a result, the state expects students of all abilities to improve, and the federal program tends to focus more on the low-achieving students.

Also, the state system does not impose penalties, and the federal system does -- McKinley this year had to send parents a letter telling them they could transfer their children to a higher-performing school, with the district picking up the transportation tab. Neither system offers rewards for success.

Similar-schools rankings compare each school with 100 others in the state with a similar level of parent education, number of English-language learners and number of low-income students. A rank of "1" means a school scored in the bottom 10 percent of its peers; a "10" in the top 10 percent. Results released Tuesday included state rankings, also a 1-through-10 number, telling schools how they fared against all schools in the state.

The rankings are based on an annual barrage of exams taken during an eight-day period in May by students in second through 11th grades. Those tests are compiled into a single score for each school and district -- between 200 and 1,000 -- called the academic performance index, or API.

In the Santa Barbara High School District, all four junior high schools showed gains, as well as all three high schools. One Santa Barbara school -- Dos Pueblos High School -- joined those schools that have met the state-set goal of achieving an API score of at least 800; it scored 814. Twenty percent of Santa Barbara's K-12 schools have met that target, compared with 21 percent statewide.

Scores for two traditionally high-scoring schools, Peabody Charter School and Santa Barbara Community Academy, dipped.

But overall, interim Superintendent Brian Sarvis was pleased with the district's results.

"Sixty-eight percent of our schools were at 7 or above," he said. "Fifty-eight percent were 9s and 10s. ... It's the highest I've seen."

Countywide, results provided few surprises. Goleta's elementary district dipped slightly, and Carpinteria High School continued a slow but steady gain. Elementary schools serving affluent communities such as Montecito and Ballard garnered stellar rankings, and schools in lower-income communities such as Santa Maria scored on the low side of average -- though often much higher than their peers across the state.

In Goleta, the average similar-schools ranking has fallen from 6 to 3.9 in two years. But Assistant Superintendent Dan Cooperman said he isn't worried, pointing out that his district's API score, 773, surpasses the state average for elementary schools: 730.

By comparison, Santa Barbara's elementary district scored 738; Carpinteria Unified School District, 731. "It's hard for me to see those schools as underperforming," he said.

Mr. Cooperman said the state's testing system is just too confusing.

"To make sense of it -- it's just hard to do," he said. "We should do a pre-test in the fall and a post-test in the spring and measure each student's growth."

At McKinley, Ms. Carney attributed the good news to a concerted reform effort begun three years ago that involved breaking away from a phonics-based reading curriculum used by every other school in the district. The school purchased a new program -- geared toward English learners -- that focuses more on enhancing vocabulary and comprehension for fourth- through sixth-graders.

But though McKinley's improvement was unparalleled in the county, its API scores remain the second-lowest in the 13-school district, next to Cesar Chávez Charter School.

"One of my goals was to be a 10 for the 'comparable schools,'" she said. "The other goal is to score a 10 on the 'state schools.' We're halfway there."

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