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The academic performance of students in the Ceres Unified School District (CUSD) is on the rise, according to the state's Academic Performance Index (API) scores released on Aug. 31.

The results are from tests taken in the spring among the district's second- through 12th-graders to measure knowledge of language arts and math.

Districtwide, API scores rose from 716 to 721. The state ideally wants all districts to be at 800.

"We gained five points and that's significant," said Walt Hanline, superintendent of the school district. "To have 12,000 kids grow, on average, five points on the API is very good stuff.

"I think as a whole we have a high performing district, at one point was the best in the state and is probably still at the top," said Hanline. "We definitely will be in the top 10 percent in the state."

He chocked up the rise to great teaching.

"We did terrific in the district," said Hanline. "It's not me - it is the teachers in this district. They're busting their tails."

The most stunning increase in scores was issued by Ceres High School where students exceeded the API target by seven times its target. CHS made a 43-point gain between 2006 and 2007, a gain of 43 points when only six were expected.

Supt. Hanlin said that the gains due primarily to a reorganization over the last three to four years "and I think we're beginning to see the benefit of that restructuring.

"Fundamentally it's good teaching that makes the difference," said Hanline.

There is also the factor of now competing with Central Valley High School.

"It's a natural human tendency to try to compete," said Hanline.

Among elementary schools, Westport Elementary made a 29-point jump in scores, six times greater than the expected five-point gain.

Whitmore Charter School of Technology (K-8 charter school) made a gain of 41 points over the previous year. The score was eight times greater than the expected five-point gain.

Carroll Fowler Elementary made a 21-point gain when the gain was expected to be only five points.

Virginia Parks continues to lead the district in the highest score. Parks achieved an 808 score, up seven points from the prior year.

While 10 schools made gains, nine schools saw a drop in their API results, however.

Some trouble areas include:

• A 90-point loss for Endeavor Alternative, an independent study program;

• A 75-point drop for Whitmore Charter Home School;

• A 73-point drop for Argus High School;

• A 21-point drop for Blaker Kinser Junior High School;

• A 13-point drop for Hidahl Elementary School.

Hanline said some good schools relaxed after being on a high of doing well.

"One of the issues which you always face is when you are consistently scoring high ... it's hard to repeat," said Hanline. "To consistently repeat year after year is really a challenge. Every single year we want everyone focussed, you want everyone's finish level high but sometimes you relax as a human being and I think we had a little bit of a relaxed year at some of our schools."

Hanline said one cannot get a clearer picture of how schools are doing unless one looks at the Similar Schools Ranking of API scores. The state releases those results every March. It weighs the schools' scores based on attendance numbers and socioeconomic factors of students.

Even though Carroll Fowler did "really good" by gaining 21 points on API, said Hanline, their similar schools ranking in 2006 was a seven.

"They have room to be better," said Hanline. "They're not the top of their band; they are doing well by the average. They made very good progress and we're pleased and proud of them."

Hanline said Endeavor's huge drop is not seen as significant because of the way the scores are weighted, nor does it receive a similar school rank.

Endeavor has about 50 high school students on independent study.

"Every year there's a whole different set of kids. We're trying to work on that. We have intentionally been reducing the number of students being at Endeavor because it really doesn't work well for many students. It's an alternative that parents want. We give it to them. It's not our recommendation."

Whitmore Charter-Home School experienced a 75 point drop. Hanline said because there were only 24 students, one student could throw off the results.

"It's a small school. It doesn't even have a normal API score. It has a formula based score. It's like (comparing) apples to rocks."

Argus explanation

Argus' score was not the train wreck it appeared to be, said Hanline. He feels the score dropped because of a change in policy now keeps many of the more successful students out of continuation high school.

CUSD shifted the tenth-graders out of Argus who passed the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Because a much higher rate of students passed it, they are kept in regular high schools.

"We've had a real shift in how we do continuation high school," said Hanline. "We're focussing on juniors and seniors who haven't passed the high school exit exam who are very deficient. These are the kids that are the most needy. So we took some pretty good scoring tenth-graders and kept them in their home school."

Caswell, Blaker, Walter White down

Hanline said part of the reason Caswell, Blaker Kinser Junior High and Walter White schools dropped in API scores is a change in principals and leadership styles.

"Leadership has an impact up to 21 percent. The impact of leadership is very, very significant on the impact of academic achievement."

Hanline said the district has identified a need for more collaboration at Caswell.

"The person who was there did a great job. Caswell is a very challenging school."

He noted that Caswell did well among certain subgroups of students but not on the students in trouble.

"Our problem was we didn't get enough of the lower level kids up to the next level. And if you don't get the bottom level of those kids up and if you don't move those percentages of kids that are failing - we maintained it, we didn't reduce it. And that's what factored in at Caswell."

He points out that the school has had long-term growth despite the recent setback. Since 1999, the school's API scores rose by 141 points.

Blaker Kinser's trouble spot appears to be in math, noted Hanline. Both Blaker Kinser and Mae Hensley junior highs enjoyed a similar school ranking of 10 in 2006. Both schools enjoyed successes in math in years past. Because many of Blaker Kinser's best math teachers moved to Central Valley High School upon its opening, scores suffered.

"We need to do a better job of teaching algebra to our eighth-graders. We're working on that."

Hidahl suffered

Hidahl suffered a loss of 13 points, feels Hanline, because CUSD moved special education classes there from Sinclear Elementary, which rose18 points.

"If we factor those kids out, (Hidahl) would have grown and exceeded the state growth target," said Hanline.

State law requires students who are two years below their grade level, be classified as special education.

Sam Vaughn mystery

The reasons for high achieving Sam Vaughn to drop nine points is a struggle to explain, said Hanline. Sam Vaughn had a similar schools rating of nine last year.

"That's pretty good and so they're pretty high. When you're that high, it's hard to maintain every year after year. People tend to relax and so they need to look at kicking it up and I think they will."

Sam Vaughn has had an overall gain of 145 points over the last eight years.

The API is the cornerstone of state's Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 (PSAA). The purpose of the API is to measure the academic performance and growth of schools. It is a numeric index (or scale) that ranges from a low of 200 to a high of 1000. A school's score on the API is an indicator of a school's performance level.

Central Valley High School's API dropped slightly. But Hanline noted it has a similar school ranking of 10.

"If you just take the raw score and compare it with the schools in the Valley, and it's going to be in the top 10. It's kind of like the difference between winning the Super Bowl 28-24 or 62-3. This year we won is 28-24. I'm not trying to rationalize; I think the proof will be in the pudding in the spring when it comes out and see how we compete with others."

The statewide API performance target for all schools is 800. Only one Ceres school exceeds that mark - Virginia Parks Elementary at 808. Coming close is the Ceres school that comes to that mark is Whitmore Charter-School of Technology at 799.

Argus struggles as the lowest achieving at 468.

A school's growth is measured by how well it is moving toward or past that goal. A school's API Base is subtracted from its API Growth to determine how much the school improved in a year.

Schools are expected to meet their annual API growth targets during the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) and California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) examinations. The academic performance and progress of schools are measured by using a numeric index that ranges from a low of 200 to a high of 1000. The growth target for a school is 5 percent of the difference between a school's API Base and the statewide performance target of 800.

Hanline said he's impressed by the fact that CUSD's API was 721 while Turlock's was 722, even though Turlock has a "significantly greater" socioeconomic level.