MARTINEZ -- Despite strong state test scores, the Martinez school district failed to meet federal achievement targets this year.

The school district was placed in "program improvement" because students failed to meet the standards under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which requires all students to be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014.

Last school year, about 78 percent of every subgroup of students in a school -- including ethnic minorities, English learners, low-income and disabled children -- were required to meet the federal target for achievement in both subjects.

In Martinez, about 58 percent of Latino students and 53 percent of low-income students were proficient in English language arts; 61 percent and 54 percent of the two groups, respectively, met the math target. Slightly more than a third of students with disabilities were proficient in math.

About 74 percent of low-income students graduated, falling just short of the 76 percent federal target.

There was a bright spot for the district -- all students at John Swett Elementary and Morello Park Elementary met the federal targets this year. Overall, the district's strong test scores earned a ranking of 839 on the state's Academic Performance Index, above the proficiency goal of 800.

School districts in the first year of program improvement must develop strategies to boost student performance, train teachers, conduct a data analysis and notify parents of the district's status. To get out of program improvement, the student subgroups that didn't meet the federal targets must make adequate yearly progress two consecutive years.

Las Juntas Elementary School is in the second year of program improvement. In addition to the actions the district must take, school administrators must allow students to transfer to another school and pay for supplemental tutoring services.

The requirement that students make "adequate yearly progress" on state tests is tied to the Title I funds the U.S. Department of Education gives schools serving disadvantaged students. Last year, Martinez received $307,000 in Title I funds, according to Andi Stubbs, chief business official for the district.

Board member Denise Elsken asked whether the federal money is worth the extra work the staff must do now that the district is on the program-improvement list.

"We're not just going to let these kids fail and be satisfied with that," Elsken said. "But at the same time, $300,000 doesn't go very far.

But board member Kathi McLaughlin pointed out that the $525,000 per year the parcel tax generates for the district is "a life saver." In fact, the board is asking voters to extend the $50 annual tax for five years to pay for programs to help students prepare for college and careers, to buy textbooks and instructional materials, to maintain teacher-student ratios and to retain staff.

"Losing $300,000 is a scary proposition to me," McLaughlin added.

Elsken veered into a discussion of test scores of students who attend Vicente Martinez High School, the district's alternative school. Elsken said she wanted to see how those students' scores compared with Alhambra High School students.

Her request brought a sharp rebuke from McLaughlin, who said it would be unfair to compare the two groups because Vicente students are dealing with a variety of personal and family issues Alhambra students don't have.

"You're holding (Vicente students) to a standard and using only that snapshot of a test as a measure of success," McLaughlin said.

The exchange revealed the rift and simmering tension on the board since Elsken and John Fuller voted against spending about $5 million in bond funds for new campuses for Vicente and Briones Independent Study School.

Elsken and Fuller have said they opposed building a new Vicente-Briones campus because it wasn't included on the original bond project list. McLaughlin, Fuller and Elsken are up for re-election.

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.