Test score data released by the state Thursday revealed that half the districts in Contra Costa County are "failing" by federal standards, even though five of those districts surpassed state proficiency goals. They are the Brentwood, Martinez, Oakley, San Ramon Valley and Walnut Creek school districts.
The results highlight the contradiction between state standards and federal standards, which has prompted California to apply for a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind.
The Martinez and San Ramon districts were newly identified this year for federal Program Improvement under the legislation, joining seven other districts out of 18 in the county that failed to meet the requirements last year or earlier. Under the federal improvement guidelines, all these districts must allow students to transfer from low-performing to higher-performing schools and take other actions to improve.
"It is one of the dilemmas of the No Child Left Behind legislation," said Martinez Superintendent Rami Muth. "It's about trying to achieve what I would consider unachievable."
No Child Left Behind legislation requires all students to be proficient in English language arts and math by 2014. In 2011-12 about 79 percent of students -- including those in subgroups based on ethnicity, income level, English language fluency and special education status -- were required to be working at grade level to meet the federal requirements.
San Ramon spokesman Terry Koehne said that test scores among African-American, Hispanic or Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities were what landed San Ramon Valley in program improvement.
"While we continue to focus on narrowing the achievement gap that exists between subgroups of students," he said, "we do not put much credence into the label of 'Program Improvement,' because it is completely unrealistic for any district to reach."
The California Academic Performance Index, or API, scores released Thursday are based on standardized tests given every year in the spring. The state rewards schools and districts for incremental growth in test scores, while the federal law requires that a higher percentage of students attain proficiency in math and English.
According to state standards, the Martinez and San Ramon Valley districts are shining stars, scoring 839 and 937 respectively, in the latest test results. The state's proficiency goal is 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000.
Throughout the county, 13 districts made gains in their API scores, while five saw declines. The Orinda district topped all others with 964, while West Contra Costa posted the lowest score at 715.
The regular, non-alternative school with the highest growth was Foothill Elementary in the Pittsburg district, which rose 70 points from 755 to 825.
"We definitely hit the jackpot," said Foothill Principal Ricardo Araiza. "We are very, very excited."
Teachers at the school test students quarterly to assess their progress and collaborate on lesson plans. Despite the progress, Foothill is in Year 5 of Program Improvement and the Pittsburg district is in Year 3. Schools placed in program improvement receive federal Title I money which must be used to improve instruction for low-income students. The regular school with the biggest API drop was Verde Elementary in the West Contra Costa district, which fell 65 points from 693 to 628, making it the second- lowest-scoring elementary school in the county, just behind Stege Elementary in the same district. Both schools are in Year 5 of Program Improvement and the West Contra Costa district is in Year 3.
The Liberty Union High School District and Oakley Elementary districts tied for the highest one-year districtwide gain, with each soaring 22 points. Liberty's score rose from 756 in 2011 to 778, while Oakley's jumped from 790 to 812.
Although the Antioch district hasn't collectively reached the state's API goal of 800, it is making good progress, with five individual schools clearing 800 and three more at 795 or above, said Mary McCarthy, director of educational services.
Staff writers Paul Burgarino, Rowena Coetsee, Eve Mitchell and Jason Sweeney contributed to this story.