Suburban schools in the Sacramento region are generally doing a better job of increasing student test scores than their urban counterparts, according to state data released Friday.
The California Department of Education released base Academic Performance Index, or API, results for last school year. The API score represents a composite of test scores at schools and districts. The state ranks schools based on their API.
The Sacramento region had more schools ranked near the top in test score performance last school year than in the previous school year but it also had more schools ranked near the bottom.
Forty-six schools in the four-county region had API scores last year ranked among the top 10 percent statewide, up from 41 in 2011. But 52 schools in the region had scores that ranked them among the bottom 10 percent, up from 48 in 2011.
Suburban schools were more likely to rank high than urban schools. About 60 percent of local schools ranked in the top 10 percent statewide are in Placer or El Dorado counties. By comparison, just 8 percent of local schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent statewide are in Placer or El Dorado County.
The rankings don't seem to be a surprise to area educators.
"We should be doing well," said Vicki Barber, El Dorado County superintendent of schools. "Parents are engaged. Kids are exposed to reading materials at home. There is an expectation that they will do well."
Sacramento County schools chief David Gordon is surprised only that the rankings didn't go down any lower at some high-poverty schools. "It's not hard to see they have been struggling from all the (budget) cuts that have been made," he said.
Reduced funding has meant increased class sizes, which can affect test scores, he said.
Gordon said he hopes the increase in state funding expected for schools in impoverished areas will help those schools to turn things around.
Miller's Hill School in western El Dorado County posted the highest API score in the region last year 964 out of 1000. Rocklin Academy had the second-highest score.
"We're as smart as whips," said Jean Pinotti, principal and superintendent of both schools in Latrobe School District. She said Miller's Hill, which serves fourth- through eighth-graders, was recently named a California Distinguished School for the seventh time.
She said the secret to the school's success is its focus on reading, which begins in the district's K-3 school Latrobe Elementary.
She also credits the "small country school" atmosphere for increased student learning. Miller's Hill has about 100 students, while Latrobe Elementary has 53.
"It's pretty hard to be a child and be failing and not be noticed at our school," she said. "When we notice, we bring all our professionals into play to diagnose and find out why they aren't learning."
Barber credits El Dorado County's overall good marks to an "emphasis on teaching and professional development," as well as to small districts where kids "don't fall through the cracks."
Only about one-third of schools in the region saw their API scores fall from 2011 to 2012, better than the 43 percent of schools that saw scores drop from 2010 to 2011.
Despite last year's modest gains, the region still has eight fewer schools ranked in the top 10 percent statewide then it did three years ago, state figures show.
Among schools moving into the top 10 percent statewide were Sunset Ranch Elementary in Rocklin, Lakeview Elementary in Rescue and Holmes Junior High in Davis. Each posted strong test score gains.
Among schools moving into the bottom 10 percent were Del Paso Heights Elementary and Nicholas Elementary in Sacramento. Both saw significant test score losses.
While three Sacramento City Unified schools made it into the top 10 percent in the rankings, 16 sat in the bottom 10 percent.
"We are making progress," said Gabe Ross, district spokesman. "Certainly, it's no secret that schools in high-poverty urban communities have different challenges."
Four of the seven "priority schools" the district's poorest and lowest performing schools moved up in the rankings, while the other three stayed at the same level as last year. "(This) illustrates that you can make those jumps in urban high-poverty schools," Ross said.
San Juan Unified, which has four schools ranking in the top 10 percent of the region and 10 schools in the bottom 10 percent, is changing its teaching methods and no longer focuses on multiple-choice testing, said Donna O'Neil, director of assessment, evaluation and planning for the district.
"Our intent is not to education students to do well on a multiple-choice test," she said. "I think they need to learn deeply. That is the bottom line."
She expects the district's students will score better after the 2014-15 school year, when they will take computer-adapted tests that include questions requiring students to explain their answers.