High-Performing Public Schools Make It Onto List Of 'Low-Achieving'

11/17/2011 10:37 am ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

Several dozen elementary schools with scores higher than the state's target for academic success have been placed on a list of 1,000 "low-achieving schools." Being on the list gives parents the right to remove their children and enroll them in higher-performing schools anywhere in the state.

The designation of these schools as "low achieving" is the unintended outcome of the Open Enrollment Act, which was meant to give parents at some of the state's lowest-performing schools greater choice as to where to enroll their children. Until passage of the law, transferring to schools in another district was exceedingly difficult for most children, achievable only through a hard-to-get inter-district transfer.

This law, which went into effect in April 2010, requires districts to send letters to parents notifying them of the right to transfer to a higher-performing school in another district, based on its Academic Performance Index (API). The state's target for success is an API score of 800 or higher.

Some 59 elementary schools with an API at or above 800 are on the recently released "open enrollment" list, created for the 2012-13 school year. Another 253 schools on the list have scores of 750 or more.

Each year, the California Department of Education drafts a new list of 1,000 schools. The initial list created for the 2010-11 school year had only six schools on it with an API score of 800 or 801 -- and none higher.

Not surprisingly, principals at many of the schools on the newly-released list are unhappy with the "low-achieving" designation.

With an API of 812, Oakhurst Elementary, a K-5 school in Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary district near Yosemite National Park, has the highest score on the list. "I share the sentiment of other principals who have this new designation -- that it's not indicative of the school program," said Principal Kathleen Murphy.

At Oakhurst, almost 70 percent of 5th graders scored advanced or proficient in English language arts and math on the recent state test. "That speaks volumes for our overall program," Murphy said. "Is that a failing school?"

Schools with high API scores can end up on the list partly because no single district can have more than 10% of its schools designated as a "low-achieving" school. So some schools with low API scores escape the designation because they are in a district with schools with even lower ones -- typically districts like Los Angeles Unified or San Diego Unified.

Kevin Monsma, superintendent for Pollack Pines Elementary district in El Dorado County, which has 700 students, is not pleased with this approach, saying that the law in effect protects large school districts and penalizes small ones. His district has two schools, including Pinewood Elementary, which is on the list with an API score of 811.

"You get to the point where you're not identifying low-performing schools," he said. "It's kind of an odd message."

Higher-scoring elementary schools, in particular, are more likely to be on the list because by law elementary schools must make up more than two-thirds of the schools on it. In fact, nearly 400 schools with the highest scores on the list of 1,000 are elementary schools, with API scores of 737 or higher. Many are schools in small districts.

The Legislature attempted to fix this problem by passing Assembly Bill (AB) 47, introduced by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. The bill would have excluded schools with an API score above 700 for two years in a row as well as schools that showed an improvement of 50 points in a year.

"Something is wrong with our open enrollment system when high-performing schools get labeled as low performers and grouped together with schools that truly need to improve academic performance," Huffman said in a press release.

But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill last month, saying that, if enacted, the bill would have imposed so many restrictions that only 150 schools would qualify as "low achieving" on the list mandated by AB 47.

"I believe that the proposed changes go too far and would undermine the intent of the original law," he said in his veto message. He also added that the State Board of Education can exempt schools that show strong student academic achievement. Since the first list was published, 103 schools have sought to be excluded from the list by applying for a waiver from the State Board of Education.

Many more superintendents, including Monsma, with schools on the new list are expected to seek waivers.

Based on past experience, it seems unlikely that many parents will take advantage of the law to transfer their children to other schools, even though they have the right to do so. And receiving schools can refuse transfers for limited reasons, including if the new student would cause overcrowding or harm the school financially.

Kelly Avants, communications administrator for Clovis Unified in Fresno County, which had one school on the "Open Enrollment" list last year, said only one student applied for a transfer under the new law.

When parents are assessing the merits of a school, she said, "we have found that our families are more likely to rely on their personal experience than a federal or state label."

In Alameda Unified, in the San Francisco Bay Area, only 19 students out of 277 transferred from Washington Elementary last year, despite the fact that the district sent multiple letters to parents explaining the new law, said Kirsten Zazo, director of Student Services for the district. Already, three have returned.

"Many parents are confused and upset by the law," Zazo said. "They love their school and don't understand why the state is encouraging them to leave."

Another Alameda Unified elementary school, Ruby Bridges, with an API of 811, was designated a "low-achieving" school on the new list. Among its challenges is a high turnover rate because its student body includes many homeless students and Coast Guard families.

In a letter to parents, Principal Jan Goodman pointed out that students who have been at the school for several years do far better than more transient pupils. She compared the test results of students who had been at Ruby Bridges for one year versus five years. For example, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in English language arts almost doubled from 39% after one year at the school to 74% after five years there.

After receiving the letter, only two students transferred out of more than 600 at the school, Goodman said. The parents, she added, "were really happy to learn that the kids who stay here do well. They don't think it is fair that the school has these labels."

To find out if a particular school is on the list of "open enrollment schools" check out the list here. See the complete list here.

Sue Frey is a program associate at EdSource. She researches and writes parent guides, issue briefs, voter guides, articles for EdSource and reports and informational material. Read more of her work, and other pieces, at EdSource.

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