Fresno Unified School District's scores dipped slightly in the 2012-13 school year on the statewide benchmark that measures how well schools are doing, mirroring a statewide trend and reversing the previous year's uptick in scores across California.
The district's score dropped from 726 to 723 on California's Academic Performance Index, according to the state accountability report released Thursday. The state's minimum target is 800.
The state's average API score fell from 791 to 789. About 51% of California schools met the statewide target, down two percentage points from last year. State officials say only 21% of schools reached the target 11 years ago.
The API is based on how well students perform on standardized tests. The index ranges from 200 to 1,000.
The results are a marked shift from last year, when all but one of the district's middle schools saw double-digit API score increases. While Yosemite and Scandinavian middle schools each jumped by more than 20 points this year, scores dropped at six of the district's 14 intermediate schools.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said those initial boosts resulted from changes to the middle school math curriculum. This year's saw-toothed results, he said, show those improvements are now leveling off.
"There's going to be bigger years and maybe fall-back years," he said. "It is consistent that we have inconsistencies and I can't think of any school that every year has had big, dramatic gains."
Fifteen schools have API scores above 800. That's one more than last year and includes two new schools, Webster and Fig Garden elementary schools.
Some schools made big gains, including Vang Pao Elementary (51 points), Carver Academy (40), Balderas Elementary (33) and Yosemite Middle School (31). Five elementary schools, including Homan and Easterby, dropped by more than 35 points each.
As in past years, the district failed to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets for English and math performance, graduation rates and other criteria. The target rises each year, and the report measures whether schools reach it.
About 50.7% of students tested as proficient or above in math, while 42.4% tested at that level in English. Both scores dropped by a fraction of a percentage point from last year.
But Hanson said he is not too concerned: Fresno Unified recently got a federal waiver from those stringent standards, which require all students be proficient in math and English by 2014. The district now has flexibility to use other measurements, like school culture and social and emotional factors, to gauge its progress.
He said this year is likely the last time Fresno Unified measures itself using the AYP.
"We're not going to continue under those same expectations," he said. "You still need to be proficient, but now you've got to take into account all these different test scores and school climate."
Hanson and other local superintendents said they plan to use the API results as they prepare to implement the new Common Core State Standards, a set of accountability targets meant to boost students' readiness for college and careers.
Those goals spell out English and math skills that students are expected to learn by the time they leave each grade level.
Some local schools have already begun teaching to those new standards. Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg said that's made it tricky for districts as they search through this year's results for grade levels or subject areas where students are struggling.
"The bad news is, the state's last year of standardized tests isn't testing those skills," he said. "That means we're transitioning, but we're all still having to look at our last set of scores."
Central Unified's API jumped five points this year, from 774 to 779.
Clovis Unified's declined from 880 to 878, but its API is still impressive, according to district administrators.
"It doesn't take much to drop if you don't have much room to grow," said Carlo Prandini, associate superintendent for school leadership. "Even with the slight decreases this year, we continue to have the highest API in the area."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, email@example.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.