Six years ago, one-third of Fresno Unified schools ranked among the worst of the worst for student academic performance.
Today, Fresno Unified's failing schools -- the ones that rank the worst in statewide and similar-school comparisons -- are down to 4% of the district.
But state data made public Thursday shows that 83% of Fresno Unified schools remain in the bottom half statewide for academic performance. That's slightly worse than last year, when 82% were in the bottom half.
"I think the statewide ranking is important, but the similar-schools rankings screams at me," said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson, noting that 31 of the district's 90 schools improved in similar-school rankings.
State data released to the public Thursday show how schools compare based on last year's academic performance index scores that are derived from standardized assessment tests. The data rank schools statewide and with schools with similar demographics -- which some in the education field suggest provides an even better picture of student performance. The bottom 10% get a rank of 1 and the top 10% a rank of 10.
In Fresno Unified, the number of schools with 1s in both categories has dropped steadily -- from 30 in 2005 to four today.
Overall, most Valley schools continue to struggle academically, but districts such as Clovis and Sanger continue to stand out.
In Clovis Unified, 98% of schools ranked in the top half of schools statewide, as did 88% of Sanger Unified schools.
The number of Clovis schools earning 10s in both categories also increased -- from six last year to nine this year. The lowest-ranked Clovis school was Pinedale Elementary, which had a 4 in statewide ranking but an 8 in the similar-schools rank -- up from 7 last year.
Other districts in the Valley also showed improvement.
Central Unified School District in Fresno -- which had about a half-dozen 1 rankings in both categories last year -- had none this year.
Central Unified Superintendent Michael Berg said professional development of all staff improved classroom instruction.
In Sanger Unified, all 16 schools ranked 8 or higher when compared to similar schools.
Madera Unified saw some overall improvement: 65% of schools were in the bottom half in statewide rankings, compared to 74% last year and 83% two years ago.
And the vast majority of Madera's schools were in the top half compared to similar schools, said district spokesman Jake Bragonier.
In Visalia Unified, "we have a lot of room to grow," said Superintendent Craig Wheaton.
Three schools ranked worse, 11 ranked the same and 18 improved from the year before compared to similar schools, he said.
Oak Grove Elementary School in northwest Visalia scored the top ranking of 10 statewide and against similar schools, the only school in the district to reach the top in both categories.
While the statewide rank is important, Fresno County Schools Superintendent Larry Powell said, the similar-school ranking provides a more accurate view of how schools are performing. "I wouldn't want to compare a Clovis school with a school that didn't have the same resources," he said.
Powell said 40% of Fresno County schools improved their similar-schools rank, 37% stayed the same and 23% got worse compared to last year.
For high schools, 46% increased in similar-schools rank, 31% saw no change and 23% decreased, Powell said. For middle schools, he said, 56% improved their rank, 33% remained the same and 10% decreased. And for elementary schools, 36% rose, 36% stayed the same and 27% dropped.
Among charter schools, Powell said, 25% increased, 67% remained the same and 8% decreased in similar-schools rank.
"We are very pleased with the direction," he said. "For middle schools and high schools in particular."
Some Fresno Unified schools improved in statewide rankings. Baird Middle School rose from an 8 to a 9 and similar-schools rank from a 5 to an 8.
Edison and Bullard high schools also improved slightly. Edison's statewide rank improved from a 4 to a 5 and its similar-schools rank jumped from 3 to 5 this year. Bullard's statewide rank remained the same at 7, but its similar-schools rank increased from 1 to 2.
Said Hanson, "If you move from a 2 or 3 to a 5 or 7, that is dramatic work."