In the Bay Area, public schools in Palo Alto, San Ramon, Pleasanton and Walnut Creek have come to symbolize educational achievement. But on Thursday, those districts joined the ranks of schools and districts that have failed by the federal government's standards, according to an annual report of state and federal testing results released Thursday by the California Department of Education.

Despite steady test score gains locally and statewide, only 26 percent of California's 10,000-plus schools met the increasingly tough and numerous targets of the No Child Left Behind Act this year. Schools and districts that miss those goals are placed in a category called Program Improvement, which comes with various sanctions.

In Oakland, that category includes schools that have received state or national recognition for their work to close the achievement gap: Think College Now Elementary, Montera Middle School, KIPP Bridge, Manzanita SEED Elementary, Carl B. Munck, and Greenleaf Elementary.

For years, educators and politicians assumed Congress would rewrite the accountability law before its ultimate standard -- all students showing proficiency in English and math by 2013-14 -- was put to the test. But the act is still in place, and though dozens of states have received waivers in exchange for agreeing to implement a host of reforms promoted by the Department of Education, California has not.

Now, with the proficiency standard nearing 80 percent, the law is playing out as one might expect.


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Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, said he considered the failure counts to be "next to meaningless" as the student proficiency bar slides swiftly upward. It's become so common for schools to miss at least one of the federal benchmarks, he said, that the law "has collapsed under its own weight."

Pleasanton Unified went into "Program Improvement" status this year, as fewer than 78 percent of its low-income and disabled students showed proficiency in math and English. Still, Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi noted that those groups made significant progress this year. Results for African-American, Latino and English-learner students also soared, and the school system's overall score rose to an impressive 915 on the state's 200-to-999 Academic Performance Index.

Ahmadi said she wasn't surprised to see high-performing districts such as Palo Alto and San Ramon in the same position. While the law has forced schools to reflect on their practices, she said, educators have long hoped that Congress would reauthorize the law in a way that's less rigid.

"We're still waiting," she said.

Once a school or district falls into PI, as it's known, it's difficult to climb out, as districts need to meet every goal for two years in a row. For example, in Alameda County, only a handful of schools managed to escape PI this year, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in Berkeley, East Oakland Leadership Academy High, and Burbank Elementary School in Hayward.

Burbank, a high-poverty school with many English learners, received a $4.5 million, three-year School Improvement Grant in 2010-11 to boost its performance. The influx of money allowed the school to offer an extended day, a "spring training" summer program, and extra support for teachers. It appears to have paid off. Its API score shot up 46 points to 841 this year, putting the school well above the goal of 800.

When the school's principal, Irma Torres-Fitzsimons, saw the results, she said, "I was ecstatic."

Torres-Fitzsimons praised the students, teachers and parents for the turnaround -- and the district, for securing the grant. On Wednesday, teachers wore T-shirts proclaiming "800 API." Next up, she said, will be a celebratory dunking of the vice-principal, Peter Wilson.

Fremont's Durham Elementary School has experienced a similar rise. In three years, Fremont Superintendent James Morris said it has gone from Program Improvement to a National Blue Ribbon Award nomination.

"You feel the pride in that school ... for what they've accomplished," Morris said.

The statewide numbers offered some encouraging trends: Black and Latino students made greater gains than did white and Asian students but still lag far behind in scores. And for the first time more than half of all schools met the state's target score of 800.

"We've set a high bar for schools, and they have more than met the challenge, despite the enormous obstacles that years of budget cuts have put in their way," state Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson said in a prepared statement. "While there's still more work to do, California's schools have earned a vote of confidence."

Staff Writers Rebecca Parr, Sharon Noguchi and Chris De Benedetti contributed to this report. Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

what's an api score?
API stands for Academic Performance Index. It's a score from 200 (low) to 999 (high) based on how students at a given school or district performed on a series of standardized tests and other measures during the previous school year. The statewide goal for all schools is 800.
what's program improvement?
Program Improvement, also known as PI, is a category of schools and districts that for two straight years have missed at least one of the many targets set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Those goals relate to the percentage of students who prove on standardized tests that they are proficient at English and math. That percentage is going up every year. This time, it's near 80 percent.
Dozens of states have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education in exchange for adopting alternative reforms, but not California.

api scores in alameda county

DISTRICT 2012 API CHANGE from 2011
Alameda 847 +6
Albany 893 +11
*Berkeley 810 +19
Castro Valley 868 +3
Dublin 901 +17
*Emery 728 +28
*Fremont 884 +8
*Hayward 718 +2
*Livermore 848 +16
Mountain House 767 +24
*New Haven 773 -2
*Newark 780 +9
*Oakland 730 +4
Piedmont 938 +8
*Pleasanton 915 +8
*San Leandro 743 +6
*San Lorenzo 749 +11
Sunol Glen 936 -3

*Districts that are in Program Improvement status under the No Child Left Behind Act.