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Ashley Mendoza, a sixth grade student at Orchard Park School in Oakley, raises her hand to answer a question during a discussion in Oakley, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Orchard Park scored an 815 on the Academic Performance Index, up six points from last year. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

Academic performance scores for most East Contra Costa school districts this year largely bucked a trend of decline throughout the state and East Bay, according to results released recently.

Three of the region's seven districts -- Byron Union, Brentwood Union and Knightsen Union -- surpassed the state's overall Academic Performance Index, or API, goal.

The API requires schools and districts to score 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000 in standardized tests to meet California's proficiency target.

Of those districts, only Knightsen's score decreased, a 24-point drop from 840 to 816.

Liberty Union High School District inched closer to the 800 mark with a nine-point increase, earning a score of 794. Oakley Union Elementary's 17-point drop knocked it back to 799.

Antioch and Pittsburg district also saw test scores decrease, both falling well short of the mark.

Additionally, those two districts along with Oakley and Brentwood retain the "Program Improvement" label that's assigned to those that are failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The federal standard requires that nearly 90 percent of all students in each school and district score at grade level in English and math; if they don't, the agencies are subject to sanctions. Last year's target was about 80 percent.

Brentwood Union highlights the contrast between state and federal standards. Although its API score is well above 800, the district failed to reach the bar the federal government set and consequently is considered to be in Program Improvement.


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Although the target for the number of students proficient in English was 89.2 percent, 67.4 percent attained that level; similarly, the goal was for 89.5 percent of Brentwood Union's students to be proficient at math, but 69.8 percent achieved that.

Many scores at individual East Contra Costa school sites were marked by large swings.

"What seems to be true across the county and in Pittsburg Unified is mixed results," Pittsburg Superintendent Linda Rondeau said. "Some of our schools had significant gains that were offset by some drops."

In that district, Foothill Elementary dropped 35 points from 826 to 791 and Highlands Elementary dipped from 767 to 731. Meanwhile, Willow Cove Elementary went up 23 points and Heights Elementary, 25 points. All four schools are in Program Improvement.

"Prior to this year's results, the schools with drops had three consecutive years of gains. We are committed to deep analysis of our data and a focus on continuous growth," Rondeau said.

The decline in test scores caught Antioch Unified officials by surprise.

Despite indications throughout the school year that showed scores were improving, the districtwide scores dropped six points from 746 to 740.

"It's very disappointing, we felt we were headed in the right direction," said Stephanie Anello, associate superintendent of educational services. "All of our student achievement metrics down to the school and grade level were up from the year before, so we were expecting an increase."

Four schools -- Orchard Park, Dozier-Libbey Medical High, Lone Tree and John Muir elementary -- cleared the 800 threshold. Two elementary schools that scored 799 last year -- Carmen Dragon and Sutter -- had double-digit drops. Conversely, Lone Tree, Turner and Fremont elementary saw double-digit increases.

Meanwhile, Antioch Unified met 22 of 46 AYP goals and as such remains in Program Improvement for the third year.

The district tested students every six weeks and teachers at the sites not only examined the results but in some cases retaught concepts.

Principals also ramped up the number of classrooms they visited.

"We're trying to look for patterns to see what happened, but we don't see one," Anello said. "For now, we are just going to have to use it to strengthen our resolve and focus on the quality of teaching that happens every single day."

Tom Torlakson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, attributed the statewide drop in scores to a curricular change in some districts. Their new curriculum encourages critical thinking and less rote memorization, which were not assessed on the current exams. He also pointed to budget cuts that have reduced the amount California spends on each student to far below the national average.

In Oakley, nearly all schools saw a double-digit decline in API scores. The lone exception was Vintage Parkway Elementary, whose 14-point gain earned it a score of 831.

Oakley Union also failed to meet federal standards for acceptable progress because not enough students demonstrated proficiency in English and math.

As of last week, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Anne Allen hadn't yet had a chance to study the results in detail, which she said requires looking at individual test scores to figure out exactly where the problems lie before deciding on an action plan.

"Who were those kids?" she said. "I need to know is whether they were English learners, Caucasian kids, Latino kids -- and where did they struggle? Was it math? Was it language arts? Was it both?"

Allen noted that because Oakley Union is a Program Improvement district, it has spent the past two years following a state-sanctioned plan to turn scores around that included assigning a second teacher to work as a full-time math coach at the elementary grades as well as one to serve as a part-time middle school literacy coach. The district also replaced the textbooks it was using to teach the lowest-performing readers in grades 4 through 8.

Allen said there's also been a push to maximize the number of minutes teachers spend on lessons by limiting the distraction of non-essential announcements. In addition, teachers are using tactics that encourage all students to participate during class instead of daydreaming, Allen said.

None of Liberty Union High School District's three mainstream schools is in Program Improvement and all met the state's goals for progress. Only Heritage High, however, has exceeded the state's target score of 800; the school currently has a score of 836. Liberty and Freedom high schools saw their scores each increase by 5 points to 785 and 787 points, respectively.

Byron Union's middle school zoomed up the API scale by 45 points, and the district overall saw its API score increase by 10 points to 846.

"Everyone is just really excited," Superintendent Debbie Burnett said. "It shows that every teacher has worked so hard and has supported each other."

Staff writer Theresa Harrington Contributed to this story. Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164 and Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.

MORE INFORMATION
What's an API score?
API stands for Academic Performance Index. It's a score from 200 (low) to 1,000 (high) that's based on how students at a given school or district performed on a series of standardized tests during the previous school year as well as on other measures. 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 consecutive years have missed at least one of the goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal goal, expressed as a percentage, rises every year.
Detailed Academic Performance Index, Adequate Year Progress and California High School Exit Exam results, including school scores, are available at www.cde.ca.gov.
A searchable database is at www.contracostatimes.com/education. More information about Contra Costa County results is in the On Assignment blog at www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.

MAKING THE GRADE
Here's a side-by-side comparison of East Contra Costa district API scores in 2012 and 2013, showing growth or decline:
DISTRICT 2013 2012 CHANGE IN PROGRAM IMPROVEMENT
Antioch 740 746 -6 Yes
Brentwood 861 859 +2 Yes
Byron 846 836 +10 No
Knightsen 816 840 -24 No
Liberty 794 785 +9 No
Oakley 799 816 -17 Yes
Pittsburg 733 738 -5 Yes
Source: California Department of Education