As California schools continued their steady gains in achievement, South Bay schools again dominated the top tier of the state's Academic Performance Index, the annual school performance scores released on Thursday.

In the index highly anticipated by parents, educators and Realtors, the South Bay can claim six of the state's top 10 school districts, three of the top 10 high schools and six of the top 10 middle schools on the 2012 scores. Six of the top 10 elementary schools -- and 15 of the top 20 -- are in Santa Clara, San Mateo or southern Alameda counties.

At the same time, Silicon Valley's stellar scores tell only a fraction of the school performance story. While Faria and Murdock-Portal in Cupertino, Millikin in Santa Clara Unified, Mission San Jose in Fremont Unified and Hoover in Palo Alto ranked as five of the top six elementary schools in 2012 state API scores, their school districts all fell into Program Improvement (PI), the federal definition of academic failure. The dichotomy illustrates the complex -- some say wacky -- conclusions extracted from the battery of standardized tests, graduation rate data and high school exit exams that contribute to API scores. The scores for the 2011-12 school year are based on standardized tests administered last spring.


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"The standards that go into PI are Byzantine," said Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly. He noted that the district is closing the achievement gap, raising scores for black, Latino, English-learning and poor students.

Yet, like Palo Alto, more California schools are missing federal targets, even as state scores rise. 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 the feds' 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, considered a high threshold. Only 26 percent of California schools met federal targets this year, a drop from 35 percent last year when the threshold was lower.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the target will rise to nearly 90 percent next year. By 2013-14, the federal government expects all California students to test proficient in English and math -- a goal widely considered 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. Because so many schools now miss the federal benchmarks, he said, the law "has collapsed under its own weight."

Despite that, both statewide and local numbers offered some encouraging trends: Continuing steady progress, now more than half the 10,000 schools in the state score at least 800, the state's minimum goal on the 200-to-1,000-point scale for API. Black and Latino students made gains, though they still lag far behind white and Asian students.

And many schools were celebrating successes. In the Alum Rock School District, 13 of 20 elementary schools scored above 800, a huge achievement in the struggling San Jose district. And Redwood City posted a 24-point gain, the biggest in nine years, to 789.

At Kennedy Middle School, which leapt 81 points in API, Principal David Paliughi credited teacher collaboration, among other things, and a laserlike focus on students mastering standards -- the detailed list of knowledge and skills that the state lays out for each grade level.

The school grew from 672 API to 753. Although that's still below the state's goal, it puts the school well on its way to escaping from the dreaded PI -- which, after several years, could result in a wholesale turnover of staff and leadership, transformation to a charter or other radical change.

Rather than focusing on a particular set of students, Paliughi said teachers expect improvement from each student, wherever they are on the spectrum of achievement. He also has tried to reach students where they are, sometimes offering rewards like movie tickets for academic achievement.

"At middle school, you're dealing with an interesting time in the kids' lives," he said. "Learnings state standards and algebra aren't always high on the priority list." Just getting some of them to take the STAR, as various achievement tests are known, is an accomplishment in itself, he said.

Paliughi promised if Kennedy significantly improved its API, he'd shave his head. Or rather, the students posting the greatest individual gain in STAR scores would get to do the shaving (with an electric razor, he assured).

So in two weeks, students will gather to witness their principal being sheared.

It may be a strange way to raise achievement, he said. On the other hand, "It's something they will all remember."

After that, he added, "I'll be wearing a lot of hats."

Staff writer Katy Murphy contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.