Palo Alto schools do well in ranking

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 2, 2000

SCHOOLS: Palo Alto schools do well in ranking

Walter Hays scores top elementary score in state; criteria unfavorable for Ravenswood

by Charlie Breitrose

If test scores and rankings are the main ways to judge school districts, Palo Alto came out on top in the state's new school-ranking system. The system treated the Ravenswood school district a bit more harshly, although it performed well compared to districts facing similar challenges.

The new system gave Walter Hays Elementary School in Palo Alto the top score for an elementary school in California, with 958 out of a possible 1,000.

This is the first year of California's Academic Performance Index (API), which were released last week amid a flood of media attention.

The system, initiated by Gov. Gray Davis, ranks all the public schools in the state as part of an effort to make schools accountable for their performance.

Schools that scored well will be rewarded. Schools that did not reach the mark are expected to show significant improvements next year and in subsequent years until they meet the level set out by the state. Those that do not can be taken over by the state.

Each public school in the state is given an API score, ranging from 200 to 1,000. The scores are calculated using part of the STAR Test, an exam given to all California public school students in grades 2 to 11. To get the state's stamp of approval, schools must score 800 or above.

Schools that are below 800 are supposed to make a jump, next year, of at least 5 percent of the difference between this year's score and 800. For instance, Belle Haven School in east Menlo Park will have a target score of 473, a 17-point increase from this year's score of 456.

Schools are also given rankings of 1 through 10 (10 being the highest) based on their API score. The state split the schools into deciles-- 10 groups with an equal number of schools in each--so not every school would be a 10, and there would always be 1's.

Palo Alto had two of the top 10 elementary schools in the state, based on these rankings--Walter Hays ranked number one in the state, and Hoover Elementary School tied for seventh. It also had three in the top 30 (Duveneck Elementary School was tied for 27th) and four in the top 40 (Addison Elementary School tied for 37th).

La Entrada Middle School, in Menlo Park, was tied for the tenth best middle school score in the state with 906. Jordan Middle School's 902 was the 15th best and J.L. Stanford Middle School was ranked 23rd with 889.

Gunn High School had the sixth highest score among California's high schools with a score of 885 and Palo Alto High School's 852 landed it at 16th.

Most of Palo Alto's schools scored above 800. Only 12 percent of California schools reached this level. All but one Palo Alto school had a rank of 10, with the other ranking a 9.

The one Palo Alto school that didn't reach that score, Juana Briones Elementary School, came in with 786.

Barron Park Elementary School was not ranked because not enough students took the test. The school only opened last year with a student population of 122. The state does not rank schools with fewer than 10 students who completed all the sections of the SAT 9 (Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition) Test, which is given in California as part of the STAR Test.

All six schools in the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park City school districts scored above 800.

In the neighboring Ravenswood City School District, it will be a more uphill battle for improvement, where all 10 schools were below the 800 mark. The highest was the James Flood magnet school, with 643 and a ranking of six.

Ravenswood Associate Superintendent Clara Rouse said the district has already begun intensive teacher training programs, started focusing on literacy and has a Saturday school program to help Ravenswood students improve academically. Teachers are also working with students on test-taking skills.

Those that do not meet the target may be put into what the state calls the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program. They will be given $50,000 to come up with a plan to improve their programs over a two- year period and if they do not, they could be taken over by district or state officials.

Schools that have met the target score of 800 are in line for rewards. Paula Wenzl, an education consultant at the California Department of Education, said the members of the state Board of Education will discuss what the rewards will be at their March meeting.

While the scores can have a huge effect on schools, many followers of education say there are problems with how the rankings are made that must be ironed out.

Barbara Miller, research director at EdSource--a Palo Alto-based nonprofit group that studies education issues in California--says one of the weaknesses of the state's ranking system is the reliance on the SAT 9 test.

"A school with a large population of non-English speakers may not perform well on an exam in English," Miller said. "Those schools are judged right against schools where all the students know English."

In Ravenswood 70 percent of the students have a first language other than English.

"No matter how you cut it, its going to have an effect," Ravenswood's Rouse said.

Eventually the state's rankings will take into account questions on the STAR Test based on the state standards, as well as student and teacher attendance rates and graduation rates, Miller said.

The highest ranking in Ravenswood was a 6 at Flood Elementary School, but the state also ranks schools in comparison to others with similar demographics. Compared to other similar schools, half of the 10 schools in the district fared better, with ranks of 8 or higher.

These rankings are determined by comparing a school with 99 other schools with similar characteristics, including: ethnicity of students, pupil socioeconomic status, percentage of students who are learning English as a second language, how many teachers have teaching credentials and class size.

Looking at the similar-school rankings gives a bit of a different picture for Palo Alto's results. Four of the 11 elementary schools that were ranked received a 3 or lower, while five were ranked 8 or above.

Jordan and J.L. Stanford middle schools were ranked 9, as was Palo Alto High School. Gunn High School had a rank of 10.

Paly Principal Marilyn Cook said she was not concerned that Paly was not ranked a 10, adding she was happy they had a high score.

"The score on the standardized test is important," Cook said. "But it sure isn't all that a school is about."

Cook said there are other measures of a school that are also important to look at, including: scores from other tests--SATs, ACTs, Advanced Placement exams--as well as the graduation rates, certification of teachers, the classes offered at Paly as well as how successful students are after leaving the school.

The similar-school rankings were puzzling for Palo Alto school officials.

"El Carmelo and Palo Verde (elementary schools) have very similar profiles, and they have exactly the same score (879)," Superintendent Don Phillips said, "but in the case of El Carmelo, it is ranked a 10 and in the case of Palo Verde it is ranked a 5."

"This system may have flaws, but it shouldn't be buried in the footnotes," said Bill Evers, a Jordan parent and member of HOLD (Honest Open Logical Debate) a parent watchdog group. Evers said school officials should be concerned that some of the district's schools are not faring well against schools in other top districts.

How many people take the test may also have an effect on a school's rank. At Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, only 78 percent of the students took the STAR Test. Gunn also had a low turnout at 79 percent.

Eric Hartwig, M-A's principal, said two things could account for the low participation. The state compares the number of students taking the test (which is given in the spring) with the official student count (which is conducted in October). The school also sent home a letter letting parents know that their students--especially those who do not speak English--could opt out of the test. The ones that opted out, in many cases, were English speakers, Hartwig said.

Another oddity of the state's program is that the score from M-A's freshmen did not count, while at Paly and Gunn they did. The reason, Wenzl said, is that students in their first year in a district are not counted.

"It gives students an opportunity to adjust to a district's policies," Wenzl said.

Since M-A is in a separate district from its feeder schools, the freshmen are new to the district. Wenzl said the state Legislature is considering a change to the program that would count freshmen who came from the regular feeder schools, but not ones who transferred in from another area.

M-A's score of 640 gave it a rank of 6. Hartwig said he likes the state's program, and is sure that his school will make the improvement target set by the state, an eight point increase. But he hopes that people don't think the education students can get at M-A is worse than schools with ranks of 9 or 10.

"We're one of the top schools in the nation in (Advanced Placement exam) performance," Hartwig said. "Kids from my school go to Princeton or Stanford all the time." 

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