Double-digit gains in Academic Performance Index scores by all but one of Fresno Unified's 14 middle schools helped propel the district to a 10-point increase on the state's yardstick for how schools are doing.
The district's overall API growth score for 2011-12 was 724, still below the statewide minimum target of 800, according to the California school accountability reports released Thursday.
The API is based on how well students perform on standardized tests. The index ranges from 200 to 1,000.
State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said a majority of California's public schools met or surpassed the API minimum target this year for the first time.
About 53% of schools statewide scored at or above 800, an increase of 4% over last year, state officials said. Ten years ago, only 20% of schools scored at 800 or higher.
Fresno Unified officials said 67 schools had API scores above 700, up from 62 in 2011.
"We are making steady gains, and as we continue to examine and make adjustments to our efforts, that growth should expand in the years ahead," Superintendent Michael Hanson said.
Despite the improved API scores, 68 Fresno Unified schools remained on program improvement for failing to meet federal government-mandated goals.
While API scores record growth or decline based on standardized test results, the federal Adequate Yearly Progress report sets targets for proficiency in English and math, graduation rates and other criteria. The target rises each year, and the report only measures whether schools reach it.
Schools that don't reach targets for AYP, part of the federal No Child Left Behind school improvement law, are in the program improvement category.
"It's like a high-jump bar," Hanson said. "You either get over it or you don't."
Fresno Unified met 24 of its 46 AYP criteria and will remain a program-improvement district for 2012-13. Lowell and McCardle elementary schools left program improvement this year.
The percentage of Fresno Unified students testing as proficient or advanced in math was 51.4%, the first time that statistic has exceeded 50%, officials said. Just over 43% of students tested as proficient or advanced in English. Both were well below the target of 78%.
Hanson conceded a lot of work remains in improving academic performance. But, he said, "What matters to me every day is student growth, and we're achieving that."
Making the biggest gains from last year's API scores among Fresno Unified middle schools were Tioga (79 points), Yosemite (69), Kings Canyon (49), Wawona (47), Elizabeth Terronez (35) and Sequoia (34). The schools, though, had API scores below 800.
Baird Middle School improved 23 points to 870. Edison Computech Middle School dropped seven points but stayed well above the minimum target with a score of 945.
Manchester GATE missed a perfect score of 1,000 by only two points.
Hanson said the district is using a regional approach -- high schools work with their feeder schools on specific needs and issues -- which he said should bring a continuing increase in API scores.
Fourteen of Fresno Unified's 88 schools had API scores of 800 or above. That is one more than last year.
Central Unified's API was 772, an increase of 10 points from last year; Clovis Unified's was 876, up five points; Madera scored 738, a rise of three points; and Visalia Unified's jumped 15 points, to 785.
Administrators from those districts attributed the gains to curriculum that requires all students to be involved in lesson plans and intervention programs throughout the year that assess each student and then make adjustments.
"Where we see deficiencies, we modify what we teach and how we teach," Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg said.
Doug Bartsch, a Visalia Unified area superintendent, said officials are pleased with strides the district has made.
Said Bartsch, "We're confident that we're going to surpass 800 next year."
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