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Federal designation is mixed message

School officials say 'program improvement' label is misleading in schools that increased API scores.

September 02, 2011|By Megan O'Neil, megan.oneil@latimes.com

Recently released testing data gave Principal Anita Schackmann plenty to celebrate — Luther Middle School climbed 19 points to a score of 845 on the Academic Performance Index, the statewide measure of student achievement.

In addition, four of five significant subgroups — including Latino and socio-economically disadvantaged students — at the Burbank school also posted double-digit gains on the accountability scale, commonly referred to as API, with a score of 800 as the all-important benchmark.

The 2010-11 numbers built upon four years of steady growth at Luther Middle School, propelled by detailed data analysis, intervention programs and increased individual attention, Schackmann said.

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But for the third consecutive year, Luther will bear a sort of scarlet letter in public education — “program improvement.” It is a federal designation via the No Child Left Behind Act that is applied to schools when any single subgroup of students fails to hit proficiency targets for two consecutive years.

“It is confusing because our growth has been steady,” Schackmann said. “We have grown every year for the last five years. We do a really good job of meeting the needs of our students.”

The contradiction between rising test scores and the federal designation can been seen at schools throughout the state, and high-ranking education officials are taking notice. Last month, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson entreated U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to freeze the program improvement sanction.

“Relief is needed immediately before more schools suffer for another school year under inappropriate labels and ineffective interventions,” Torlakson said in his letter.

Local educators have been equally vocal in their calls for reform. The annually increasing federal targets — which this year were 11% growth in the number of students testing proficient in English language arts and mathematics — are not realistic, they said.

“This is an antiquated system,” Glendale Unified Assistant Supt. Kathy Fundukian Thorossian said. “It should have been redone a long time ago. We are hoping we just do away with it.”

Glendale and Burbank school districts now have a combined 14 schools in program improvement, even though 12 saw their API scores climb during the 2010-11 year.

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