California Middle School in Sacramento's Land Park neighborhood has doubled the number of students scoring well on state achievement tests in six years. It has a new curriculum, committed teachers and a waiting list of parents hoping their children can attend.
And, according to the federal government, it is failing.
The school is in good company. Three-quarters, or 230, of the Sacramento region's Title I schools schools that take federal money to help impoverished children succeed have landed in "Program Improvement," a federal designation that exposes them to sanctions. Included are schools in Davis and Rocklin with composite test scores near the 90th percentile statewide.
Over the past two months, those schools participated in what has become an annual rite of public humiliation: They sent letters to the parents of 132,000 students saying their children's schools don't meet federal standards.
"It's very confusing," said Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, an education strategy firm. "On the one hand, you are telling (students) they are succeeding. On the other hand, you are telling them they are failing."
The confusion stems from a key provision in the federal No Child Left Behind law passed a decade ago.
The law sets clear goals for student performance. It enshrines the notion that all students are capable of performing at grade level, requiring not only that a set percentage of students at the school test proficient but also that every subgroup of students regardless of race or income meet that standard.
Under the law, 100 percent of students must score at grade level on math and English tests by 2014, a high mark designed to make schools focus attention on their worst-performing students, instead of writing them off.
But no school in the region from the cracked streets of Lemon Hill to the brick driveways of Granite Bay saw 100 percent of students score at grade level on both English and math tests last year, according to a Bee review of test score data.
"The goal of achieving 100 percent proficiency was a good goal," said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, which advocates for school accountability and reform. "But it wasn't necessarily a realistic goal."
Already, the proportion of students that must perform at grade level for a school to meet federal standards has risen from roughly 15 percent a decade ago to 25 percent six years ago to 90 percent this year.
For schools that receive federal Title I funding half the schools in the Sacramento region missing the mark is more than just an embarrassment.
Title I schools have historically been hotspots for the "achievement gap" among ethnic and income groups. Closing such gaps is a key element in No Child Left Behind, leading the federal government to attach strings to Title I funds.
Once Title I schools fail to meet standards twice, they go into Program Improvement and must allow students to transfer to non-failing schools. In addition, they have to spend large sums on private after-school tutoring. If they don't subsequently improve, they are subject to a state takeover or significant restructuring.
The threat and burden of such penalties was, for several years, "a helpful driver of change," Ramanathan said.
"You had a reasonable number of schools," he said. "You had a set of targets that were achievable. You also had a process where people were coming to schools and figuring out how to improve them."
But, added Ramanathan, "Once the sheer number of schools that have been captured in this exceeded a certain threshold, it no longer was quite as good."
'We talk about growth'
California Middle School has seen an academic revival during the No Child Left Behind era, but it's also a testament to the difficulty of clearing a bar that keeps rising.
On a recent Tuesday at the school, eighth-graders typed feverishly on laptops in a history class while working on an assignment that involved reading portions of the Federalist Papers and arguing on whether to ratify the Constitution.
Substitutes headed some classes while math teachers attended training on national Common Core Standards, which aim to align curriculum from different states. Other classrooms were conducting benchmark tests to help teachers assess where to focus instruction.
Principal Elizabeth Vigil has emphasized innovation and collaboration during her nine-year tenure. The school is one of the first in the Sacramento City Unified School District to instruct general education and special education students in the same room, a practice called inclusion.
All of which seems to have paid off.
Six years ago, barely three out of every 10 students at the school performed at grade level on end-of-year English tests. Last year, that number doubled to more than six of every 10.
"I'd send my child to (Cal Middle School) in a heartbeat, and she may end up going there," said Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond.
But Cal Middle has not improved fast enough to meet No Child Left Behind standards.
The school first ran afoul of the law around 2005, when roughly 80 percent of its African American students failed to meet math and English standards.
Over the years, despite improvement, more student groups missed the rising mark. In 2010, the whole school fell below it.
The changing standards vexed school staff. They said they took the exams seriously, and were proud of their rising scores.
"And yet, we are in year five of Program Improvement," Vigil said, adding that she appreciates efforts to set goals for her school, as long as they are realistic.
Vigil said a number of factors make it difficult for schools to consistently get such high percentages of students in every subgroup to proficiency in reading and math. In some cases, teachers grapple with behavioral and truancy issues. Some students struggle to stay focused, Vigil said, and others have issues with endurance during the long tests.
"Kids come to us with varying levels of proficiency. They also come with varying levels of social and emotional readiness," Vigil said. "Teachers are having to work with the whole child. It's a key factor to how successful kids are in school."
As the school slips further behind the mandated pace of improvement, Vigil focuses on the gains being made. She holds near-annual student assemblies celebrating their accomplishments.
She wants students to continue to improve, but doubts they can do it fast enough to meet No Child Left Behind's standards.
"Our attitude is every year we want to grow," she said. "We don't talk about the Program Improvement status. We talk about growth."
Each year, the school must send a letter home saying the school is failing. Responding to one of those letters, a confused student approached Cal Middle school teacher Jennifer Ellerman.
He said, "I thought this was a good school," recalled Ellerman, who struggled to explain to the student how Program Improvement works.
"There was all this celebration and yet there was this sense of defeat," said Ellerman, who was recently named Sacramento County Teacher of the Year.
Largely due to similar stories across California, the state Board of Education submitted a waiver request in June asking the U.S. Department of Education to exempt the state from some No Child Left Behind provisions, including the requirement that all students demonstrate English and math proficiency.
The waivers, which have been issued to dozens of states, stem from a logjam in Washington.
Congress and President Barack Obama broadly agree that No Child Left Behind should be modified but disagree on the substance of changes. Without legislation, the Obama administration turned to waivers.
So far, the U.S. Department of Education has greeted California's waiver request with silence. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would not hint during a recent visit to Sacramento on whether the waiver, which did not conform to some guidelines his office laid out for a new accountability system, will be approved.
The main sticking point is the federal government's insistence that states at least partially tie teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement. California officials balked at that request.
State educators, reformers and parents often do agree on several changes that likely would pass muster with the federal government, including:
Tracking individual student performance and growth instead of mandating that all students and ethnic groups improve to a certain level.
This would help Cobblestone Elementary in Rocklin, which is at danger of going into Program Improvement because 70 percent of its low-income students scored at grade level on English tests last year, below the federal goal.
Children in poverty often live in rental homes and move frequently among neighborhoods, disrupting the continuity in their schooling. Cobblestone Principal Kathy Goddard said some of the impoverished kids moving into her school are so far behind that it is difficult to get them to grade level within a year or two.
"We believe in the goal of making all students proficient," she said. Her school's composite test scores rank near the top of the region's schools, and are rising. "But if we focus everything we do toward getting that one number higher, our kids aren't going to enjoy learning, and we've lost the whole point of education."
Creating a system that rebuilds parent trust.
At North Davis Elementary, parents recently got a letter saying their school is failing and their children could transfer to another school, even though the school's children collectively test better than almost 90 percent of students in the state. The school's low-income students and English-language learners aren't performing up to federal standards.
"As far as I'm concerned, the teachers are doing a great job," said Stephanie Schoen, the PTA president at North Davis Elementary. "I told my son we got this letter, and granted he is in first grade, but he said, 'I'm not going to another school.' "
Keeping some consequences in place for schools that don't perform well.
"We want relief from the parts of the federal law that aren't working, but that doesn't mean we're retreating from accountability," state board President Michael Kirst said when the state asked for the waiver. "Our system is better than No Child Left Behind at identifying which schools need help."
But just how the state would hold schools accountable is still vague, said Freedberg, the EdSource director.
"Under the state system, there is not much guidance in terms of what a successful school is," he said, adding that, "the state board is working on this."
Key funds tied up
Local school districts are hoping a federal waiver comes soon, because the current system is tying up millions of dollars they think could be put to better use.
Officials at districts with a school in Program Improvement must set aside 20 percent of Title 1 funding to let parents transfer their child to a non-Program Improvement school or receive free after-school tutoring, said Linda Cook, interim coordinator of state and federal programs at Sacramento City Unified.
In Sacramento City Unified, that 20 percent pot amounts to about $4 million annually, enough to hire back scores of teachers laid off during the recession. Cook said that about 1,000 students in the district opt to be bused to a non-Program Improvement School at a cost of $631,000. The remaining money goes to private after-school tutoring.
In addition, several schools are in the midst of mandated restructuring of staff and leadership. Those measures were designed by Congress to improve student performance and get schools out of Program Improvement.
Yet, while test performance has risen, only 79 of roughly 4,000 schools statewide in Program Improvement scored well enough last year to leave the program.
Those odds will only get worse if the waiver doesn't go through and the bar continues to rise.
"All the good value No Child Left Behind created for us is being undermined," said Kevin Brown, superintendent at Rocklin Unified.