BERKELEY -- Almost half of the largest school districts in Alameda County missed a statewide target for tests measuring academic performance, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education.
Seven of the 16 largest districts in the county failed to reach a score of 800 for the Academic Performance Index, or API score, which is based on standardized tests last spring of students in grades 2-11 in subjects that include English, math and history. Scores on the test range from 200 to 1,000.
California schools as a whole didn't meet the standard either, turning in a score of 791, down two points from last year.
Tom Torlakson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, attributed the drops to a shift to new Common Core standards that are not assessed on the current exams, along with budget cuts that have reduced per student funding in California far below the national average.
In addition, several East Bay schools joined hundreds statewide that have been newly identified as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law
In Alameda County, the worst performers were school districts in Hayward, Oakland and Emeryville. Both Hayward and Oakland turned in scores of 721 while Emeryville posted a score of 722. Also scoring under 800 were San Lorenzo, which dropped nine points from last year, and San Leandro, three points lower. But Hayward, while still under 800, improved this year by three points.
Rising to the top of the heap were Piedmont with a score of 933, followed by Pleasanton at 909 and Dublin at 904. Fremont posted a score of 891 and Berkeley 821.
In Oakland, where scores dropped seven points from last year, Superintendent Gary Yee said the drop in scores can be attributed to a new way of teaching as districts transition to the Common Core curriculum, which shuns learning to memorize for tests and pushes critical thinking.
"Now the teaching is less of a drill-and-kill approach for basic skills learning and more of a complex thinking approach to academic writing and reading for understanding," Yee said. "It doesn't mean our students are any less prepared, it just means what they are being tested on is different from what they are learning."
In Fremont, where schools scored in the top five for the county with 891, an improvement of six points over the last year, Superintendent Jim Morris said his schools improved despite teachers having to learn the new Common Core curriculum.
"When you look at the API scores, our trajectory of growth the past four years has been eight, eight, eight and six," Morris said. "We've focused a lot on helping teachers prepare for teaching the new national Common Core standards. I feel good, even with that -- even as much as we focused on the Common Core standards that have to change to make the instruction more rigorous -- we still took a pretty good jump, especially when we're so high performing to begin with."
Hayward Unified School District Interim Superintendent Stan Dobbs painted a positive picture of his district's three-point improvement, even though it was one of the lowest scores in the county.
"With only eight of the 18 school districts in Alameda County improving their API -- and the state showing an overall decline, this is evidence that Hayward Unified School District is on the right track," Dobbs said.
San Leandro Unified Superintendent Mike McLaughlin said his school district's drop from 742 to 739, well below the state target of 800, "is disheartening to all stakeholders in the district because of the hard work that was put in to address the areas of need.
"With that being said we are very proud of the gains of both of our middle schools, Muir and Bancroft," McLaughlin said. "And our high school stayed the same as last year."
San Lorenzo Unified School District had a sizable drop from 748 to 739. Officials there said they would redouble their efforts.
" For schools that showed decreases in results, the district leadership is analyzing data and developing a site specific plan of support for those sites and subgroups," said Katarin Jurich, director of assessment and English learner programs for the district.
Some of those programs include more teacher training for the new Common Core practices and a focus on English learners in prekindergarten through third grade, she said.
Torlakson also released statewide passage rates for the California High School Exit Exam, noting that the class of 2013 passed at the highest rate since the test became a graduation requirement, with 95.5 percent passing.
Staff writers Rebecca Parr, Chris De Benedetti and Ashley McGlone contributed to this story. Contact Doug Oakley at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.
What's an API score?
API stands for Academic Performance Index. It's a score that can range from 200 to 1,000 based on how students at a given school or district performed on a series of standardized tests and other measures during the previous school year. 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 straight years have missed at least one of the many targets set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Those goals relate to the percentage of students who prove on standardized tests that they are proficient at English and math. That percentage is going up every year. This time, it's near 90 percent. Next year, it will be 100 percent.
Dozens of states have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education in exchange for adopting alternative reforms, but not California. However, the Oakland district has received a waiver as part of a consortium of districts.
Detailed Academic Performance Index, Adequate Year Progress and California High School Exit Exam results, including school scores, are available at http://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.