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.