Higher-performing schools make it onto list of "low-achieving" schools


Photo by Hans Gerwitz

Photo by Hans Gerwitz

Several dozen elementary schools with scores higher than the state’s target for academic success have been placed on a list of 1,000 “low-achieving schools.” Being on the list gives parents the right to remove their children and enroll them in higher-performing schools anywhere in the state.

The designation of these schools as “low achieving” is the unintended outcome of the Open Enrollment Act, which was meant to give parents at some of the state’s lowest-performing schools greater choice as to where to enroll their children. Until passage of the law, transferring to schools in another district was exceedingly difficult for most children, achievable only through a hard-to-get inter-district transfer.

This law, which went into effect in April 2010, requires districts to send letters to parents notifying them of the right to transfer to a higher-performing school in another district, based on its Academic Performance Index (API). The state’s target for success is an API score of 800 or higher.

Some 59 elementary schools with an API at or above 800 are on the recently released “open enrollment” list, created for the 2012-13 school year. Another 253 schools on the list have scores of 750 or more.

Each year, the California Department of Education drafts a new list of 1,000 schools. The initial list created for the 2010-11 school year had only six schools on it with an API score of 800 or 801 — and none higher.

Not surprisingly, principals at many of the schools on the newly-released list are unhappy with the “low-achieving” designation.

With an API of 812, Oakhurst Elementary, a K–5 school in Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary district near Yosemite National Park, has the highest score on the list. “I share the sentiment of other principals who have this new designation — that it’s not indicative of the school program,” said Principal Kathleen Murphy.

At Oakhurst, almost 70 percent of 5th graders scored advanced or proficient in English language arts and math on the recent state test. “That speaks volumes for our overall program,” Murphy said. “Is that a failing school?”

Schools with high API scores can end up on the list partly because no single district can have more than 10% of its schools designated as a “low-achieving” school. So some schools with low API scores escape the designation because they are in a district with schools with even lower ones — typically districts like Los Angeles Unified or San Diego Unified.

Kevin Monsma, superintendent for Pollack Pines Elementary district in El Dorado County, which has 700 students, is not pleased with this approach, saying that the law in effect protects large school districts and penalizes small ones. His district has two schools, including Pinewood Elementary, which is on the list with an API score of 811.

“You get to the point where you’re not identifying low-performing schools,” he said. “It’s kind of an odd message.”

Higher-scoring elementary schools, in particular, are more likely to be on the list because by law elementary schools must make up more than two-thirds of the schools on it. In fact, nearly 400 schools with the highest scores on the list of 1,000 are elementary schools, with API scores of 737 or higher. Many are schools in small districts.

The Legislature attempted to fix this problem by passing Assembly Bill (AB) 47, introduced by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. The bill would have excluded schools with an API score above 700 for two years in a row as well as schools that showed an improvement of 50 points in a year.

“Something is wrong with our open enrollment system when high-performing schools get labeled as low performers and grouped together with schools that truly need to improve academic performance,” Huffman said in a press release.

But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill last month, saying that, if enacted, the bill would have imposed so many restrictions that only 150 schools would qualify as “low achieving” on the  list mandated by AB 47.

“I believe that the proposed changes go too far and would undermine the intent of the original law,” he said in his veto message. He also added that the State Board of Education can exempt schools that show strong student academic achievement. Since the first list was published, 103 schools have sought to be excluded from the list by applying for a waiver from the State Board of Education.

Many more superintendents, including Monsma, with schools on the new list are expected to seek waivers.

Based on past experience, it seems unlikely that many parents will take advantage of the law to transfer their children to other schools, even though they have the right to do so. And receiving schools can refuse transfers for limited reasons, including if the new student would cause overcrowding or harm the school financially.

Kelly Avants, communications administrator for Clovis Unified in Fresno County, which had one school on the “Open Enrollment” list last year, said only one student applied for a transfer under the new law.

When parents are assessing the merits of a school, she said, “we have found that our families are more likely to rely on their personal experience than a federal or state label.”

In Alameda Unified, in the San Francisco Bay Area, only 19 students out of 277 transferred from Washington Elementary last year, despite the fact that the district sent multiple letters to parents explaining the new law, said Kirsten Zazo, director of Student Services for the district. Already, three have returned.

“Many parents are confused and upset by the law,” Zazo said. “They love their school and don’t understand why the state is encouraging them to leave.”

Another Alameda Unified elementary school, Ruby Bridges, with an API of 811, was designated a “low-achieving” school on the new list. Among its challenges is a high turnover rate because its student body includes many homeless students and Coast Guard families.

In a letter to parents, Principal Jan Goodman pointed out that students who have been at the school for several years do far better than more transient pupils. She compared the test results of students who had been at Ruby Bridges for one year versus five years. For example, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in English language arts almost doubled from 39% after one year at the school to 74% after five years there.

After receiving the letter, only two students transferred out of more than 600 at the school, Goodman said. The parents, she added, “were really happy to learn that the kids who stay here do well. They don’t think it is fair that the school has these labels.”

To find out if a particular school is on the list of “open enrollment schools” check out the list here. See the complete list here.

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7 Responses to “Higher-performing schools make it onto list of "low-achieving" schools”

  1. RBarbee said

    on January 19, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Agreeing with Ms.Goodman. Without being cynical I am a bit cautious about the equation used for this social engineering that would result in an equity issue — high-performing schools being absorbed into low-achieving category. The interim result is a reshuffling of the deck thereby allowing subgroups access to high-performing schools via “choice transfer” protocol. Arithmetically and socially the result for the pursuing transfer population may not be as positive as some innovator of this scheme would realize. While a parent will do “whatever” to gain advantage and access for a child, income, location, transportation, overall logistics could be challenging. OK, so some say “step up” and try harder. How about another point — share the intellectual and professional capital and spawn in low-achieving schools the educational quality of the higher performing schools. THAT may or may not mean (a) professional inservice, (b) teacher “swap” and mentoring, (c) “sabbatical offerings” from high to less-than-high schools for a specific period of time — AND do it with a group of teachers — not one’s/two’s at a time, to the extent such an act will not be to the detriment of the “loaner” school. Let’s look at equity in pedagogy, sensitivity to culture, engaging as to family, and NO deficit thinking….Not idealistic, but maybe harvesting better sustainable results than the engineered equation that reshuffles the deck under the auspices of affecting API score change.

  2. Jan Goodman, Rub Bridges Principal said

    on November 28, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    It was demoralizing for our school to have the label of “low-achieving” when, in our five years as a school, we scored over 800 on the API for the past four years and, in 2011, 87% of our fourth grade students scored proficient or above on the 2011 STAR test.

    On state testing, Ruby Bridges outperformed 8 of 10 schools with similar demographics for our first three years, and 9 out of 10 in our fourth year. Our scores are remarkable when you consider that 68% of our students qualify for free or reduced price meals; 40% are English learners; 10% are currently or were formerly homeless; and 20% are from military families whose lives are often in transition.

    Due to the state’s budget cuts, and the failure of our parcel tax in the Spring of 2010, class sizes were increased in Grades K-3 by 25%, from 20 to 25 students, and our school enrollment increased by 10%. Summer school programs were discontinued for most students; the school year was cut by five days, and all professional development days were eliminated. Despite these challenges, our API dropped by only five points, from 816 to 811, in 2011.

    The system that resulted in the labeling of schools as “low-achieving” is inequitable, erroneous, and harmful to the morale of our entire school community. I invite Governor Brown and members of the state legislature to visit our school to see the impact of their poorly designed legislation and the veto of changes that would improve it! They will see a productive, respectful and caring community that is deeply committed to our students and their families. Our teaching staff is highly skilled and deeply committed to our community, and our students are remarkably resilient and vibrant. We are not low-achieving!

  3. Kim Kenne said

    on November 17, 2011 at 7:48 am

    The state needs to raise the 800 API bar. Schools, like Oakhurst Elementary in the above article, are achieving APIs of over 800 with proficiency rates of under 60%. (2011 AYP proficiency rates for Oakhurst: 56.8% ELA, 58.8% Math). Do we think a school is high-achieving when more than 40% of the students are not at grade level? A school in my district has an API over 800 with less than 50% of students proficient in ELA. Or are we saying that this is the best we and the students in CA can do?

  4. Sue Frey said

    on November 16, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Under Open Enrollment, which is a state law, the district is not required to provide transportation for children to a new school. However, under NCLB’s intervention program, Program Improvement, districts are required to provide transportation to another school in the district. Many schools on the Open Enrollment list are also Program Improvement schools.

  5. lovemydistrict said

    on November 16, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Transportation is paid by the district to move from school to school and part of the requirement for these schools. There is little to no funding for this about 1% of the federal funding. The true problem is that those at risk economically, want to have their children close. They often watch smaller siblings and bus routes cannot be considered. They want their kids to stay in the neighborhood. Scores are not everything in a student’s education. Many students who have English as a second language just cannot score perfect; they are intelligent and are eager to learn, it takes them longer. NCLB is not realistic it should measure PROGRESS of students and not a score.

  6. Brent Zupp said

    on November 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Imperfect solution. Seems to favor the middle and higher income families who can afford to deal with expenses of moving a child to a new school. I doubt school buses change routes to accommodate such transfers, so low income families (those without cars, etc.) generally have to accept the schools that are close by. So those children remain “left behind.”

    While this does put pressure on some schools, the primary focus must always be to increase performance of ALL schools.

  7. bettereducation said

    on November 16, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Good on Governor Brown for continuing to support this program. School choice is an important tool to have, even if parents don’t take advantage of it. It puts pressure on schools to do well since they know parents MAY leave. Why don’t they allow all schools to have open enrollment?

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