Declining student test scores are pushing more California schools farther away from state goals and putting some in danger of federal sanctions.
About 70 percent of schools in the Sacramento region saw their Academic Performance Index a composite of student test scores decline from 2012 to 2013.
The state wants schools to earn an API score of at least 800. About 53 percent of local schools hit that target last year, compared with 51 percent of schools statewide.
Many, including California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel, have blamed lower test scores on years of cuts to education funding. Others say teachers are focusing their efforts on new state curriculum standards called the Common Core.
"There are too many factors to say it's a single thing," said Mark Cerutti, associate superintendent of education services for Elk Grove Unified. "The most significant change (last school year), in terms of Elk Grove and state and districts across the country, are that we are implementing significant changes in teaching and learning."
Nearly all of the largest districts in the region saw API declines. At Elk Grove Unified, 45 of 62 schools saw test scores drop; at Sacramento City Unified, it was 62 out of 83; at San Juan Unified, 52 out of 63; at Twin Rivers, 33 out of 46.
County schools chief David Gordon said this round of declining test scores doesn't necessarily mean local schools are performing poorly.
"Many of the schools have been scoring at very high levels and have been rising over the last 10 to 12 years," he said. He said schools nearing the top of the "ceiling" sometimes slip.
"This doesn't mean the system is crumbling or the results are poor and the kids are learning less," he said.
Schools that don't reach federal targets, however, can be subject to sanctions. The federal government's targets are different than the state's and they move higher each year.
Last school year, about 90 percent of students at a school needed to test proficient for the school to meet "adequate yearly progress." Of roughly 550 schools in the region, only 28 hit that goal.
If a school takes certain federal money Title I grants it must meet federal goals each year or be placed in Program Improvement, which exposes it to sanctions that could include it being taken over or having its leadership and some of its teachers replaced.
Statewide, only 14 percent of 9,861 schools met federal benchmarks this year, compared with 26 percent last year, according to the California Department of Education. This year, 741 new Title I schools have entered Program Improvement. Last year, 261 local schools were in Program Improvement, up 30 from the year before.
"We are chasing it, but we aren't moving at 10 percent every year," said Debra Calvin, associate superintendent at Woodland Joint Unified School District, of federal requirements. "That is a pretty daunting task."
Woodland Joint Unified was among a handful of local districts that posted test score gains. Nine of 15 schools saw increases.
The biggest API drops in the Sacramento region were at the Thomas Edison Language Institute in Arden Arcade, which saw scores fall 114 points from 2012 to 2013, and at Floyd Elementary in Sacramento, which saw API scores drop 91 points.
The biggest API gains were at Jefferson Elementary in South Natomas, where scores improved by 70 points, and at Charter Montessori Blue Oak in Cameron Park, where scores improved by 69 points.
Jefferson Principal Danisha Keeler credits data-driven instruction and a motivated and talented staff for the school's success a 100- point increase in two years.
Sacramento City Unified officials don't have to worry as much about federal targets as others do. The district is one of eight recently granted waivers from No Child Left Behind sanctions.
"We get to develop an accountability model that gives different measures of teaching and learning," said Superintendent Jonathan Raymond.
District leaders will look at data to see which schools need special help, he said. Those schools will be paired with high-performing schools, so their administration and staff can share teaching methods and other information to improve student scores. But most school districts in California don't have this benefit.
"It is unfortunate that officials in Washington continue to enforce a program they have acknowledged is deeply flawed, and that paints too many high-achieving schools with the same broad brush," said state schools chief Tom Torlakson in a prepared statement released Thursday.
Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090.