Taking their first dip after years of steady gains, Academic Performance Index scores in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties fell by a point this year, reflecting a statewide decline in scores released Thursday.
Education officials offered no single explanation for the drop in scores, but several blamed successive years of budget cuts and the transition to a new curriculum. On the 200 to1,000 API scale, Santa Clara County schools scored 837 and San Mateo County schools scored 827, both one point lower than adjusted scores from last year.
In San Jose Unified, which saw many double-digit declines, several schools last year changed teaching to match the new national Common Core curriculum. "It's difficult to be assessed on one set of standards when you know you have to shift to another set," Superintendent Vincent Matthews said.
Still in the South Bay and on the Peninsula, scores remain well above the statewide API of 789, which fell by two points from last year. The state assigns nearly every public school and district an API score, which is derived from standardized exams including the STAR tests and high school exit exams administered in the spring.
Local API and proficiency scores paint a picture of the educational disparity that plagues California, with the region's public schools dominating the top tier of the API -- while scores of Latino and African-American students lag significantly behind their white and Asian peers.
What's more, Latino students in Santa Clara County perform worse than do Latinos statewide. Only 49.2 percent of Latino students in the county are proficient in math compared with 50.6 percent in the state.
The much-awaited API shows Faria in Cupertino Union School District, with a score of 999, as the state's top-scoring elementary school. The South Bay and Peninsula together have 11 of the top 19 elementary schools, seven of the top 16 middle school scorers and four of top 15 high school scorers.
But scores at many of the region's struggling schools took a dive.
At the same time, all of the district's seven middle schools posted gains.
"Alum Rock has been on a fairly positive trajectory for 10 years," Superintendent Stephen Fiss said. With the district API at 785, "it gets much more difficult to continue positive trending."
Another district charter, Alpha: Blanca Alvarado Middle, scored 828 in its first year. Despite meeting the state's goal, Principal John Glover said he's disappointed in his school's performance among English-language learners. "We have clearly identified a problem that's going to be a focus," he said, but "relatively speaking, we're doing a better job."
He credits the school's model of assigning half a class to work on individualized online lessons while the teacher takes the other half of the class, to create an effective smaller class size and more attention for each student.
As expected, because of the rise in federal expectations of proficiency, fewer California schools passed that bar and are now categorized as failures, liable for intervention and punishment. Of Santa Clara County's 31 school districts, 21 fall into that category -- even though several of them, like the Union elementary district in San Jose and the Los Gatos district, well exceed state performance standards.
"It's a universally discredited system," state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said about the federal rules, based on the No Child Left Behind law.
In other results released Thursday, the percentage of students passing the high school exit exam grew to its highest level. Among the Class of 2013, 95.5 percent passed the exit exam, a 0.5 percentage point increase from last year's graduating class. In addition, a larger percentage of students passed the test when they took it the first time as sophomores -- about 73. 8 percent, or a 2.3 point increase from sophomores in 2012.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
An API score is a composite combining information across grade levels and subjects. It covers results from the standardized tests administered last spring in English, math and -- at select levels -- social studies and science. Results from special exams administered to students with disabilities are also included. For high schools, the API also includes results of the California High School Exit Examination.
In calculating API, the state also rewards schools that elevate students from the lowest-performing levels.