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Published in Print: February 2, 2000, as Calif. Schools Get Rankings Based on Tests

Calif. Schools Get Rankings Based on Tests

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California officials last week ranked most of the state's 8,000 schools from 1 to 10 based on their performance on standardized tests, but softened the blow by telling low-scoring schools: Where you are now is not as important as where you're going to go.

Unveiled on Jan. 25, the academic-performance index is the long-awaited cornerstone of Gov. Gray Davis' plan to hold schools more accountable for academic results. On the basis of students' performance on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, the state assigned all schools a score ranging from 200 to 1,000.

Only 12 percent of the 7,100 schools that were included in the index this year logged scores that met or surpassed the state's academic target of 800.

Mr. Davis, a Democrat who took office last year, urged schools to keep the long view in mind when examining their state-assigned scores and rankings.

"It matters less to me where a school ranks today," the governor told reporters when the index was released. "What really matters is whether it shows improvement a year from today."

Based on the Stanford-9 results, the index assigns a score of 10 to schools that ranked in the top 10 percent of schools statewide, and a score of 1 to those schools scoring in the lowest 10 percent. The index includes a second ranking that compares a school's test scores with those of other schools that have similar demographics.

The index is designed to evolve to take into account factors other than test scores—including attendance and graduation rates—once the state devises a way to compile that information statewide. Schools serving fewer than 100 students are excluded from the index, but the state hopes to come up with a way to measure student performance in those schools by the end of this year.

Delaine Eastin, the state's elected superintendent of public instruction, said that while the index is not yet a finished product, it will be effective if the state maintains and improves it in the coming years.

"This is powerful stuff," Ms. Eastin said. "I'm just sorry it has taken us this long to get here. But now that we're here, we can't trash it and start over again."

The governor also urged districts to be patient.

"I am confident that schools will rise to the challenge we have set for them, that scores will rise, and that students will graduate with marketable skills," he said.

Growth Targets Set

Besides telling schools how they stack up statewide, the index gives most of them an academic-growth target to meet in order to qualify for a portion of a $150 million rewards program.

For schools that scored above the 800 target, the job is simply to stay above that level, said Doug Stone, a spokesman for the state education department. But for the many schools with scores under 800, the growth targets are designed to be surmountable goals—an increase of roughly 5 percent on state tests every year.

"The beauty of this system is that schools that have very low ranks are given the opportunity to improve annually," Mr. Stone said. "The focus is on growth."

The targets are not without teeth for some schools, however. To the 430 schools that are set to receive a total of $96 million in aid through a state program for low-performing schools, the goals have serious implications. If the schools fail to meet the targets within two years, they could face sanctions including, in extreme instances, a state takeover. (HEADLINE, Sept. 22, 1999.)

It's All Relative

To Thomas Reasin, the principal of the 2,600-student Century High School in Orange County, his school's score of 8 when compared with demographically similar schools is more meaningful than the school's overall state ranking of 2.

More than 50 percent of the school's students are still learning English, he said, and most have parents who lack a college education. Given such circumstances, "it's very, very difficult to compete" with schools serving students from more affluent backgrounds, Mr. Reasin said. "The reality is, you give me your kids, I'll give you my kids, and we'll score better than you."

But to Rosarba Manrique, an assistant principal at the 1850-student Fair Elementary School in Los Angeles, the fact the school scored a 10 when compared to similar schools is only a small consolation, given that the school scored a 2 overall. "The 2 we are not happy about," she said. "We are striving to get a 3 next year. Four would be ideal, but it's a stretch."

Schools' ability to compare themselves with similar schools is one of the most important features of the state index, said Bob Wells, the executive director of the Association of California School Administrators."For schools that don't score a 9 for their comparison group, [the index] will give them a list of resources—places they can go where people face similar circumstances and say, 'What are you doing to get your results?'" Mr. Wells said.

Mr. Wells and Ms. Eastin, the state schools chief, both said that they had heard some school officials say that the demographic information used to compute their schools' comparative scores was faulty.

"There could be an individual case where [school officials] weren't as rigorous in filling out the form, and they got hurt," Ms. Eastin said.

Vol. 19, Issue 21, Pages 16,22

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