California schools continued their steady gains in achievement, and for the first time more than half of them met the state's target score, according to California's annual index of school achievement released Thursday.

As always, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Contra Costa county schools in general outperformed state averages. 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. The scores for the 2011-12 school year are based on standardized tests administered last spring.

But the slew of scores released also highlighted the stark divergence between state and federal scores. Even while more schools are meeting state targets, more of them are missing federal ones. That's because the state measures year-to-year improvement in achievement, while the federal system looks only at proficiency, or how many children are at or above grade level. And its demands for the proportion of students expected to meet that benchmark rise steeply every year. For 2011-12, about 78 percent of students had to test proficient in math and English.


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By the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, only 26 percent of California schools met federal targets. That's a drop from 35 percent last year, largely because that target was raised by 11 percentage points last year. In two years, by 2013-14, the federal government expects all California students to test proficient in English and math -- a goal widely considered to be unrealistic.

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. Meanwhile, other states have received waivers from the rigidity of the decade-old federal law. It's become so common for schools to miss the federal benchmarks, he said, that the law "has collapsed under its own weight."

In contrast, by California standards, 59 percent of elementary schools, 49 percent of middle schools and 30 percent of high schools score at or above the state's target of 800 on the 200-to-999 Academic Performance Index.

"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."

Schools that miss their federal goals are placed in a category called Program Improvement, which comes with various sanctions. Once falling into PI, as it's known, it's difficult to climb out. For example, in 2011-12 in Alameda County, only a handful of schools managed to escape PI, including two in Berkeley and one in Hayward. At the same time, about 20 were added to the watch list for missing the increasingly stringent federal proficiency goals for two straight years.

In Oakland, that status is now shared by schools that have received state or national recognition for their work to close the achievement gap, including Think College Now Elementary, Montera Middle School, KIPP Bridge, Manzanita SEED Elementary and Greenleaf Elementary.

Parvin Ahmadi, superintendent of Pleasanton schools, has found herself in a perplexing, but increasingly common, spot. Her district's African American, Latino and English learner students' results soared this year, and the school system's overall score rose to an impressive 915. Yet on Thursday, Pleasanton appeared on the list of districts in need of improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ahmadi said everyone saw this coming; for years, educators have waited for Congress to reauthorize the decade-old federal accountability law in a way that's less rigid.

"We're still waiting for that," she said.

Check back later today for updated stories on local test-score results. Contact Sharon Noguchi at snoguchi@mercurynews.com or 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.