API scores rise at high school district


By Marsha Sutton

Senior Education Writer

Academic Performance Index numbers were released this week by the California Department of Education, and the San Dieguito Union High School District reported significant increases over last year at nearly every school.

Canyon Crest Academy, in Pacific Highlands Ranch, gained 18 points, to pass the 900 mark. CCA’s 910 API makes it the highest-scoring comprehensive public high school in the county and one of the highest in the state. CCA’s enrollment is about 1,875 students in grades 9-12.

Carmel Valley’s Torrey Pines High School, with about 2,700 students in grades 9-12, also made gains this year, scoring 880, nine points higher than last year.

Carmel Valley Middle School scored 971, up four points from last year, while Earl Warren Middle School in Solana Beach, the only school in the district to see a lower API this year, dropped four points, to 925. Both are grades 7-8 schools.

The district’s two middle schools in the north – Diegueno and Oak Crest – increased their API scores, Diegueno up 19 points to 908 and Oak Crest up 13 points to 902.

Scores also climbed for San Dieguito’s high schools in the north. San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas scored 854, up nine points over last year, and the API for La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad came in three points higher than last year, scoring 818.

Of the district’s eight comprehensive middle and high schools, five scored APIs over 900 – all four middle schools, plus Canyon Crest Academy.

Traditional comprehensive high schools exclude specialty schools that have eligibility criteria for admissions, which may include some charter schools, magnet schools and very small special applications schools.

“Canyon Crest is the first comprehensive high school in San Diego County to top 900,” said Rick Schmitt, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services. Last year, he said, only six traditional high schools in California topped 900. The district has not yet examined the 2011 scores for statewide comparisons.

Schmitt credited CCA principal Brian Kohn and founding principal David Jaffe – and the CCA staff – for the school’s success.

“Brian and David built that place, its energy and culture, and they get a ton of credit,” Schmitt said.

“I think one can argue that this is an historic accomplishment,” Kohn said in an email. He said, though, that he’s most proud that students are excited to come to school.

“It’s all about school culture,” Kohn said. “Jaffe set it up beautifully, the staff made it real, and the students achieve because they treat each other well. They like being here, and they are proud of their school.”

Less money, larger classes

Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s executive director of curriculum and assessment, said this year’s growth district-wide is the continuation of an upward trend over the past three to five years.

Identifying and zeroing in on under-performing students and under-achieving subgroups were key strategies, he said. “We’re trying to identify those individual students and making sure they’re getting additional support ... and then providing targeted and effective intervention,” he said.

Grove also said that collaboration district-wide to achieve consistency in instruction – “rather than each site doing its own different thing” – has made a difference.

Schools have also developed common assessments for each course that are given several times during the school year.

“That allows us to adjust our instruction mid-stream if kids aren’t performing well on those common assessments,” Grove said. Being able to identify struggling students while they’re still in school, rather then depending upon state test results released the summer after school is out, helps teachers immediately address gaps in learning, he said.

It’s not just under-performing students who have increased proficiency though, said Grove, commenting, “All of our kids are learning better.” The district is identifying what he called “essential learning outcomes” so teachers can give kids of all abilities the immediate feedback they need to move successfully to the next level.

Schmitt said the district eliminated most of its travel and conference budget four years ago and invested the money – about $500,000 annually – into teacher release time, training and programs.

As with all California school districts, San Dieguito has seen its budget slashed in the past few years, and has had to reassess priorities. Yet API scores continue to rise, with less money and larger class sizes.

“The biggest investment school districts make is in people, and people cost money,” Schmitt said. “Our class sizes have gone up the last five years, and that’s universally true.”

There is some evidence that students in kindergarten through third grade benefit from very small class sizes, he said, but not older students.

“The older the kids get and the more affluent the neighborhood, the less if any noticeable gains there are,” he said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t help, because in certain cases it does. But universally there’s no evidence.”

“Budget cuts are there and they’re going to continue, I believe,” Grove said. “But we as a district have done our absolute best to make cuts in areas that are not as directly going to impact teaching and learning.”

He credited SDUHSD superintendent Ken Noah for making student achievement the top priority.

Schmitt and Grove both said the district is fortunate to have supportive parents and families to provide financial aid, nurturing and opportunities for their children.

Expected gains

The formula for calculating the API is based about 80 percent on the results of the California Standards Tests given to students each spring, plus the results of the California High School Exit Exam, Grove said. Positive CST and CAHSEE results were released earlier this month, so the district anticipated good API scores.

“We were expecting to see good gains, based on those two tests,” Grove said.

Different demographics can account for some of the difference in API scores between Torrey Pines and Canyon Crest, Grove said. CCA has fewer under-performing students, he said, “so it’s a little bit easier for them because there’s fewer students to identify to work with.”

Canyon Crest and Carmel Valley Middle School have the fewest proportional number of under-performing students, based mostly on the demographics of the communities they draw from, Grove said.

Schmitt noted that Torrey Pines has larger populations than CCA of traditionally under-performing subgroups, like Latinos, low-income, special education and English language learners. However, on the other side, TPHS has a larger number of students in the higher-performing Asian subgroup.

The district overall increased its API score in 2011, with an API of 886, up nine points from last year.

“We’re very pleased,” Grove said. “You work hard all year and you believe that you’re doing the right things, but this gives us validation of the work we’ve been doing. When you look at the data, it shows [students] are learning.”

The San Dieguito Union High School District educates about 12,500 students in grades 7-12.