Viewpoints: School test scores mask failure

With graduation season in full swing, the cover story in the June issue of Sacramento Magazine rates the 66 high schools in and around California’s capital. The ratings rely on the state’s school-performance scoring system which, unfortunately, masks a key reality. The “best” schools, largely in middle-class or affluent neighborhoods, are not as good as people may think.

Sacramento Magazine lists area high schools “according to statewide ranking based on API scores.” The Academic Performance Index, or API, uses student results on the state’s California Standards Tests to calculate a score on a 200-to-1,000 scale for every public school. State education officials have designated 800 as the target all schools should strive to achieve.

Thus, a school may score an 817 on the API and that may seem pretty good. That number, however, doesn’t tell anyone about how many students are failing to achieve grade-level proficiency in core subjects.

Grade-level proficiency – full mastery over grade-level subject matter – is an important concept because the federal No Child Left Behind law says that all students must be proficient in math and English by 2014. Behind the API scores of the top schools on Sacramento Magazine’s list, one finds that many students fail to reach the grade-level proficiency goal.

Take Vista del Lago High in suburban Folsom, east of Sacramento. Located in a ZIP code with a median home value around $340,000, the school is three-quarters white, with only 5 percent low-income students, and virtually no English-language learners.

Vista del Lago’s 855 on the 2008 API ranks it among the top three schools on the Sacramento Magazine list, but hidden achievement problems lurk behind the stellar façade.

On the 2009 11th-grade state English exam, more than a third of Vista del Lago juniors failed to score at the proficient level. Among juniors taking the Algebra II or accelerated summative math exams, a combined 62 percent failed to reach proficiency.

Further, many Vista del Lago students aren’t ready for college-level work.

California State University administers the voluntary Early Assessment Program exam, which measures the preparation level of high schoolers for college English and math. At Vista del Lago, nearly all juniors took the 2009 EAP English and math exams. On the English test, more than six out of 10 juniors scored not ready for college English. Worse, 86 percent of juniors taking the math EAP failed to demonstrate college readiness.

Vista del Lago’s results are mirrored at most of the other highly rated suburban schools on the Sacramento Magazine list. At Granite Bay High School in affluent Granite Bay, nearly a third of juniors failed to achieve proficiency on the state English exam and six out of 10 failed to hit the proficient mark on the state Algebra II and summative math tests. At Oak Ridge High School in well-to-do El Dorado Hills, nearly six out of 10 juniors failed to test college-ready in English. In solidly middle-class Rocklin, 84 percent of juniors at Rocklin High were unprepared for college math.

So what does all this mean for parents and taxpayers? First, middle-class parents must realize that the public schools in their “nice” neighborhoods may not be as good as the state’s obfuscatory rating system says they are. Second, many middle-class suburban parents have been hit hard by plunging home values and rising debt. They, like low-income inner-city parents, would benefit greatly from programs like the successful and popular Swedish universal voucher program that attaches public funding to children so that they can attend the public or private independent school of their choice.

Parents who want full details on the performance of their school should take a look at, maintained by California Business for Education Excellence, the education arm of the California Business Roundtable.

The website contains the proficiency and college-readiness results for most California public schools. Armed with this information, parents can start asking hard questions and demand the kind of change that will shake up the system and give them more choices.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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