Nearly three out of four schools in Sonoma County saw their state academic score drop this year — a fall mirrored across California as teachers increasingly switch their focus to a new set of standards.
The sag in scores comes at the same time that 59 percent of Sonoma County schools reached or exceeded the state goal of 800 out of 1,000 on the state Academic Performance Index, the same rate as last year. Statewide, 51 percent of schools met the mark — a decline of two percentage points from last year.
The numbers were part of the federal and state academic results released Thursday by the California Department of Education. The findings are based on tests given last spring to students in grades two through 11.
The fall in scores was met with equal parts frustration and puzzlement as school districts try to emerge from years of deep budget cuts, shortened school years and increased class sizes while redesigning their academic focus to address a new curriculum labeled "Common Core."
"If we hadn't seen very similar kinds of trends in the state data, I would be much more concerned, but our declines pretty much closely mirror the declines statewide," said Mickey Porter, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. "It's still concerning. I know that our schools and teachers will be looking at the data and asking why."
Within counties and districts, there were dramatic differences in how schools fared — another symptom of a testing system that is serving two masters, educators said.
"I think that is the question: Why they went down?" said Petaluma Superintendent Steve Bolman whose district-wide API fell eight points, to 815. "I would say they learned as much (as last year), but did they learn what is tested?"
In Lake County, 10 schools increased their API, 10 recorded lower scores and one stayed even with last year. But within those numbers, said senior director of educational services Tim Gill, schools posted wild fluctuations year over year.
"We have our bright spots, we had some big crashes," he said. "We haven't really seen a year like this before, where the swing in the pluses and minuses have been this dramatic."
In Mendocino County, six schools went into Year 1 Program Improvement, bringing the countywide total to 36, said Paul Joens-Poulton, executive director of educational services for the Mendocino County Office of Education.
In Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County's largest school district, the overall API remained unchanged at 790, but schools posted dramatically different results.
Piner High School posted the largest gains in Sonoma County except for the one-grade Sixth Grade Academy in Petaluma — increasing its score by 36 points. Elsie Allen High School rose 20 points. Santa Rosa Middle School fell 45 points, Rincon Valley Middle School dropped 21 points and Brook Hill Elementary went down 20 points.
Piner, which for years has been saddled with Program Improvement penalties, began a freshman academic transition program two years ago and the staff has embraced the Common Core, said Principal Sally Bimrose.
"Previously, there was kind of a punitive impact upon us and I think as a staff, they have been able to say 'You know, that focus is not helping so let's look toward the future,'" she said. "It gives us a united focus. The gains did not happen because of the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind."