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Sonoma County schools continue to outpace their peers statewide academically, yet a record number of schools and districts in the county have failed to meet federal benchmarks laid out in the No Child Left Behind law, according to data released Wednesday.

Both the state Academic Performance Index and the federal No Child Left Behind law's adequate yearly progress targets are based largely on the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams given to students in grades 2 through 11 each spring.

But depending on who is analyzing the scores, the results tell a dramatically different story.

Fifty-four percent of Sonoma County schools have met the state goal of a score of 800 or higher out of a possible 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index, above the 49 percent of schools that met that goal statewide.

But a record number of campuses have been flagged by federal officials as failing because not all students in all sub-categories — including those with disabilities and those learning English — met spiking academic targets.

Statewide, of the 6,157 schools that received Title 1 funds, 3,892 — 63 percent — are in Program Improvement status. Of those, 913 were identified for the first time Wednesday — nearly double the number that were identified last year.

The difference in state and federal scores lies largely in how the different programs define success.

The state scores are based on a growth model under which students, schools and districts are judged by how much their scores increase over time.

The federal standards are based on all students meeting the same requirements at the same time, no matter where they scored when the assessments began.

A record high of 53 Sonoma County schools are now in Program Improvement — 19 of which joined the dubious list this year, Year 1 status. There are five levels of sanctions from Year 1 to Year 5 in the most severe cases. Twenty schools in Sonoma County are in Year 5.

Only 32 percent of Sonoma County elementary schools met federal benchmarks this year, down from 43 percent last year and 77 percent in 2006 when targets for proficiency were significantly lower.

Middle schools had the least success, with only 30 percent meeting federal targets, down from 42 percent last year and 59 percent in 2006.

At the high school level, 48 percent of local high school campuses met all federal benchmarks, up from 45 percent last year but down from 56 percent in 2006.

Educators contend the approximately 11 percent increase in levels of proficiency for all subgroups required this year — including those students learning English, students considered socio-economically disadvantaged, and those with disabilities — is unrealistic.

"We have some groups of students that we don't seem to be able to reach as much as we need to in order to make them gain ten to eleven percent increases," said Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of Sonoma County schools.

Although all schools are graded on whether they meet the federal benchmarks, only those campuses that receive Title 1 funds, which target low-income students, can be hit with sanctions and be labeled a Program Improvement school.

Having the state tell schools they are succeeding while the federal government puts warning labels on schools sends a confusing message to parents, teachers and families, Brownell said.

"That is the piece that doesn't make a lot of sense when you think about that," she said.

In releasing the annual report cards Wednesday, the state schools chief ripped the federal program for unfairly labeling schools failures when the state rewards them for significant academic strides.

"We believe the No Child Left Behind policies are flawed," he said. "If we stick with that system, another 913 schools will fall into Program Improvement and be labeled failing schools when many of those schools are making significant progress."

"We need a time out on the No Child Left Behind unfair and arbitrary standards that can't be met," he said.

In the Mark West District, San Miguel Elementary School posted a 14-point gain to reach 866 on the API scale — well above both the state proficiency goal of 800 and the statewide average for elementary schools of 808.

And yet the school will be labeled a Program Improvement campus because it failed to meet federal targets in one of the 17 categories.

"We play two different games," said Mark West Superintendent Ron Calloway who last year was principal at San Miguel.

"What are parents supposed to make of this when on one hand California is reporting growth and on the other hand, the federal government under No Child Left Behind is saying you are not performing."

Calloway said San Miguel posted a 51-point API gain for Latino students last year but missed the mark for socio-economically disadvantaged students, thereby getting flagged by the feds.

"Schools like that are moving in the right direction," Torlakson said of schools posting significant API gains while failing to meet all federal benchmarks. "It's just plain wrong to have the federal government have a system that labels them a failure. It's confusing to parents and demoralizing to teachers."

And yet the same theme is playing out across the county and state.

In Santa Rosa City Schools, historically high achieving campuses Hidden Valley and Proctor Terrace elementaries, notched API scores of 906 and 905 respectively but still failed to meet all of the federal benchmarks laid out under Adequate Yearly Progress.

Those campuses will not face sanctions because they do not receive Title 1 funds — but the mixed message from federal and state officials is frustrating, according to local educators.

"We absolutely don't want to leave any child behind, but the amount the bar is raised each time is really very difficult for any school — even for those of us who have traditionally achieved the scores that have been expected of us," said Hidden Valley Principal Patty McCaffrey.

Last week Torlakson sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asking for relief from federal penalties — especially in light of California's budget crisis. On Wednesday Torlakson said he had received no response from Duncan's office.

Local educators credit No Child Left Behind with bringing to light the needs of all students on campus, including those with learning disabilities and those who are learning the English language.

But many of those same educators point to Wednesday's test results as a glaring example of how No Child Left Behind is flawed, arguing that expecting all students to score proficient or advanced in core subjects no matter their background is unrealistic and to label all schools that don't meet this goal as failures is unfair.

"Assessment is important, evaluation is important but the benchmark that you put there is what is going to be of value. If you put in something that is not realistic, it has no value," said Steve Herrington, superintendent of Sonoma County schools.

NOTE: News researchers Teresa Meikle and Janet Balicki contributed to this story. Staff writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.