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Corona Creek Elementary School in Petaluma posted a 57-point gain on its state academic rating this year, pushing its score to 939 out of a possible 1,000. Only one other campus in Sonoma County registered a higher score.

And still, under rules laid out under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, Corona Creek is a failing school and in Year 1 of Program Improvement sanctions.

Such is the divide between how the federal and state programs gauge academic success -- a chasm that was brought into further focus Thursday when the California Department of Education released the latest state and federal academic results culled from exams given last spring.

"I think (parents) understand that we are doing everything we can for children, but that something is askew, something is not adding up," said Bob Cmelak, principal at Corona Creek and Superintendent of the Waugh District.

"There is nothing more you can do than have a 57-point gain," he said.

At Corona Creek, Latino students' API scores rose 96 points to 899, while English language learners' went up 101 to 903.

The conflict between federal and state programs is playing out across Sonoma County and California, although it is especially acute for those schools that received federal Title 1 funds, meant to assist socio-economically disadvantaged students.

That's because all schools are graded on whether they meet the federal targets, but only those that receive Title 1 dollars can be labeled in Program Improvement and suffer sanctions.

Statewide, of the 6,209 schools that received Title 1 funds, 4,402 -- 71 percent -- are in Program Improvement status and of those, 699 were identified for the first time this year. Last year, 63 percent of Title 1 schools were in Program Improvement.

"Within the political context, people get it that we are working with two accountability systems that are not aligning," said Mickey Porter, assistant superintendent at the Sonoma County Office of Education. "The juxtaposition that a lot of our schools are having -- they're getting 800 plus (API scores) and getting this Program Improvement label and they are going, 'Whoa.' "

The frustration over federal penalties and a record number of Sonoma County campuses falling into Program Improvement -- up to 59 from 53 last year -- comes amid consistent gains posted by schools across Sonoma County.

Fifty-nine percent of Sonoma County schools reached or exceed the state goal of 800 on the API, up from 54 percent last year. Statewide, 53 percent of schools met that mark, a 4 percentage point increase from last year and the highest number ever.

At the same time, the county's overall API score has increased to 794, compared with the overall state score of 788. The goal is 800 out of 1,000.

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 exams given to students in grades two through 11 each spring.

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.

No Child Left Behind requires schools to make "adequate yearly progress" with all students, including those with disabilities and those learning English, or be penalized. Failure to meet those targets can incur sanctions including requirements on how funding can be spent, staffing changes and others.

The target -- the percentage of students who must score proficient or advanced -- has been increasing about 11 percent each year in recent years and will continue to increase until 2014 when all students are expected to hit the targets. The proficiency target for the most recent scores was nearly 68 percent in English language arts for elementary and middle school students and almost 67 percent for high school students. In math, slightly more than 78 percent of elementary and middle school students are expected to be proficient, while 66 percent of high schools must meet that target.

County schools chief Steve Herrington credited No Child Left Behind with pushing schools to work for academic gains for all students but said that the federal targets are spiking at a "skyrocketing" rate.

"Do we live in a society where everyone is perfect? Do we live in an educational environment where everyone is proficient?" he said.

Once a school falls into Program Improvement sanctions, gains must be made in all categories -- typically 17 at the elementary school level -- for two years in a row to exit.

While schools and districts are waging an increasingly competitive battle for kids and the state funding that comes with enrollment, schools that get labeled as Program Improvement campuses can suffer a public relations black eye.

At Cinnabar Elementary School in Petaluma, despite an API score that rose 57 points to 838 this year, the school remains in Year 1 Program Improvement.

"We had a really good year, we worked really hard and to say that we are still in Program Improvement is kind of a target on us," Cinnabar principal and superintendent Chuck Bush said. "It does seem kind of disheartening to have such a great, great score and still be considered a failing school by the federal government."

California officials agree.

The state has requested a waiver from No Child Left Behind -- meaning schools would shed the Program Improvement label in addition to the financial and academic requirements that go along with falling into those penalties.

"California's request for a waiver from the requirements of NCLB is still pending," State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a statement. "While we're waiting for the flexibility we need, we're not going to allow a flawed system to distract us from the work we are doing to help schools improve."

Rincon Valley District Superintendent Casey D'Angelo backed the state's waiver request and said the prospect of relief from federal penalties or being stuck with the label of being a Program Improvement school won't keep educators from pressing for academic gains.

"It doesn't mean we are going to stop worrying or stop working," he said. "We are going to continue to focus and continue focusing on learning."

News researcher Janet Balicki constributed to this story.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writesan education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

You can reach her at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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