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API or AYP test? Will we call the whole thing off?

By Peter Schrag Sacramento Bee Columnist September 8, 2004

If ever there was a set of school testing and accountability systems made for spinning, we've got them. And in California's case, the spinning applies not only to the activities of the spinmeisters in Sacramento, but to the spinning heads of the parents and community leaders at the receiving end.

Take last week's simultaneous release of the state's API (Academic Performance Index) and the numbers for the federally mandated AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). Each is supposed to measure the performance of each school and district.

The news wasn't great on either scale, but since the two often diverged, and since neither measure is based on anything approaching hard science, there's plenty of room for confusion.

As a review by California Business for Excellence in Education pointed out, many California schools that showed big gains on the state API did terribly on the federally mandated AYP. One school in East Palo Alto, for example, gained a stunning 101 points on the 1,000-point API scale, but just 9 percent of its students were rated proficient in English and 2 percent in math.

On the other side of the ledger, Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, echoing the view of her national union, said the federal system stinks. It's a plan "to set schools up for being called failures with absurd rules of this massively underfunded law," a Trojan horse for vouchers.

State schools chief Jack O'Connell said he was "pleased that the California students who are taking these tests continue to do better." But he doesn't much like AYP either because rather than measuring school improvement, it measures performance against an absolute scale.

What's certain is that if this year's numbers show mixed results, and if the federal rules aren't changed, the AYP numbers next year will be really bad. And after that, they'll get worse every year. That means that hundreds, maybe thousands, of schools, will be vulnerable to federal sanctions.

Both sets of numbers come more or less from the same tests. But the federal standard, set by NCLB, the No Child Left Behind education act that's the showcase of President Bush's "compassionate conservatism," mandates that all students in all schools in the nation achieve "proficiency" or better in English and math by the year 2014.

AYP is based not only on schoolwide averages, but on the separate scores of various subgroups - Latinos, African Americans, poor children, English language learners and most students with learning handicaps. Moreover, any school that doesn't test the requisite 95 percent in each group doesn't make its AYP.

But in the law's mushy political compromise between federal mandates and state prerogatives, it's up to the individual states to define "proficiency" and to set the curve by which they expect to climb to that 2014 goal of 100 percent proficiency.

To its credit, California defined proficiency at a high academic level. At the same time, however, the standard for adequate yearly progress has been dismally low for the first three years. This year, a high school in which 9.5 percent of the students in all groups score proficient on the state's math tests is rated proficient. In English, it's 11.2 percent.

Next year, and for the two succeeding years, those levels rise to 20 percent and 22 percent respectively.

Thereafter they climb up a steep slope until they reach the magic 100 percent in 2014. Though it begins at a slightly higher level for elementary schools, and thus climbs somewhat less steeply, the curve rises to a similar balloon payment.

The official rationale - as in many other states - is that it gives schools time to ramp up. But it's also a way for a lot of politicians to show they're tough on standards at very little risk that they'll be around to deal with the fallout in the years ahead.

What makes all this so portentous is that the feds impose tough sanctions on schools receiving federal Title I funds - meaning high-poverty schools - if they don't make AYP in a succession of years. That includes - in theory - a requirement that districts allow children in those schools to transfer to better schools, with the district footing the cost of transportation out of its federal money.

Like the state, NCLB also imposes remedial steps on low-performing schools including, ultimately, "reconstitution" of the school and its staff. No one yet knows where the cavalry to rescue those low-performing schools will come from.

But even the embarrassment of low ratings, especially for schools that have been well regarded, will generate backlash. Indeed, although Congress has ducked the issue this year, it's already started.

Some states, charging that NCLB is badly underfunded, have been in semirevolt. It'll get hotter next year.

But behind all that, both sets of numbers tell the same old story: Most students in high-poverty, high-minority schools continue to lag badly behind their more advantaged classmates, no matter how you measure it. That's what most needs attention.

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Last modified: September 9, 2004

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