With a record number of Sonoma County schools in federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law, more administrators than ever before are scrambling to make sense of their new reality.

This year, 53 of the county's schools have been ordered to raise their test scores in future years or face increasing penalties for failing to meet academic targets in last spring's Standardized Testing and Reporting program. Nineteen were placed on Program Improvement status for the first time this year.

Twelve of the county's 40 districts are on Program Improvement status, which triggers a progressively strict series of actions designed to bring struggling schools into compliance with federal standards. Schools that fail can be required to offer additional academic support, allow students to transfer to non-Program Improvement-labeled schools, make staff changes and eventually turn operations over to the state.

However, critics say the rankings and punishments are losing their meaning as more schools are being labeled failures. Increasingly, historically high-performing schools are failing to meet the unrealistic goals, state schools chief Tom Torlakson said in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education. He is asking for a waiver from increasing federal penalties for California schools.

But in the meantime, those penalties exist and more Sonoma County schools are facing them.

"P.I. still matters. There are still Program Improvement sanctions," said Mickey Porter, regional director of a state program aimed at assisting program improvement schools and districts.

Porter spoke to a room full of administrators who gathered this week in Santa Rosa to learn what their new status means to area schools.

Under current targets, 67 percent of students are expected to score proficient or advanced in English language arts and 68 percent of elementary and middle school students are expected to score proficient or advanced in math. For high school students, the current target is 66 percent in math.

Next year, about 78 percent of all students are expected to show proficiency in English language arts and 79 percent of elementary and middle school students in math. In high school, the math target jumps to slightly more than 77 percent.

Torlakson's request doesn't necessarily foreshadow a lessening of those requirements or an elimination of penalties for failing to meet them, Porter said.

Schools and districts must work with the system as is, even though the future of the law is far from certain, she said.

For first-year Windsor Superintendent Tammy Gabel, her district's situation is a little hard to fathom.

The students in the district posted a 12-point gain on the state's Academic Performance Index, but the district failed to meet all of its federal targets so fell into Year 1 of penalties.

Further still, Windsor is facing a unique puzzle of federal penalties.

Mattie Washburn, a campus that serves kindergarten and first graders, is now in Program Improvement, despite the fact that the state exams are not given to students until they are second grade.

That campus will be penalized because it is a feeder school for Windsor Creek — a school that did fail to meet federal benchmarks this year.

But the kicker for Gabel: Mattie Washburn, which doesn't take the test, will be penalized, while Windsor Creek, whose students do take the test, will not because Windsor Creek does not receive Title 1 funds — the trigger for being exposed to penalties.