Students discussing a book outside
John O'Connell High School students Ahlayah Shabazz, Carlos Oviedo and Marlene Oviedo (from left to right) discussed the book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfights in Heaven" this week as part of a homework assignment for their sophomore English class. O'Connell's standardized test scores saw the largest gains in the school district, according to data released recently. Photo by Chelsi Moy

John O’Connell High School student Damonni Minor’s favorite subjects are math and science, although her grades don’t always reflect her enthusiasm.

“I think homework is pointless,” said Minor, who gets mostly C’s. “I already know the material.”

But now, thanks to a new program at John O’Connell, students like Minor who perform well on the California Standards Test can receive a bump in their classroom grades as well. The program gives students a reason to care about the test that has been used since 1999 as a measure of academic performance.

Principal Mark Alvarado attributes the spike in John O’Connell’s 2012 Academic Performance Index (API) to the school’s Bump it Up program, which gives students like Minor an incentive to do their best. O’Connell’s API score grew 71 points this year – the biggest gain in the San Francisco Unified School District and the third best in the state.

As a school district, San Francisco this year surpassed the state API target of 800 in a possible range of 200 to 1,000. Many Mission District schools saw improvement in their API scores, which were released by the district last week.

The only Mission schools with declines were Marshall Elementary and Mission High. Those schools’ principals said they are analyzing the results.

Federal School Improvement Grants have “provided the necessary resources for our district to support some of our highest-need schools,” said Gentle Blythe, a school district spokeswoman. Such grants, in turn, help to fuel rising academic achievement. But every school has its own formula for success.

Alvarado, a new principal at John O’Connell this year, praised his predecessor, Martin Gomez, for implementing Bump it Up.

“He created a culture where students want to perform well on the test,” Alvarado said. “If we can see that students are proficient on the test, then we can justify a grade boost.”

At a recent assembly to celebrate the improvements in O’Connell’s standardized test scores, Alvarado read off the names of students who received a boost in their classroom grade. There were so many honorees that it took him 20 minutes to read through the list. Minor was able to boost her grade in science from a D to a C and her math grade from a C to a B, which pleases the 16-year-old and her parents.

“It’s awesome,” Minor said during a recent break from study hall. “If my grade was only based on homework it wouldn’t be as good, because I don’t spend a lot of time on it. But testing is easy.”

A mile away, at SF International High School, co-principal Sonia Geerdes is glowing about the improvement in her school’s API score — an increase of 54 points in 2012.

Geerdes attributes the success to the school’s intense focus on reading comprehension. No matter what the subject area — math, physical education, history — every instructor has incorporated reading comprehension into the curriculum, she said.

Reading comprehension is often more challenging than learning to write for students who are learning English. All of SF International’s students speak English as a second language, and most have lived in the United States for less than a year, Geerdes said.

“We want to emphasize the bigger challenge,” she said. “We’ll continue that work this year.”

O’Connell and SF International have made significant gains in their academic performances, yet these Mission neighborhood high schools still lag behind their counterparts in terms of overall academic performance.

While the state and district’s goal is for schools to score an 800 or higher on the API chart, Mission schools often don’t pass muster because of the unique makeup of their student populations. SF International’s overall API score — not its growth — is 476 on a scale of 1,000. O’Connell’s API score is 667.

Despite the impressive boost in O’Connell’s scores, Alvarado is not satisfied that the school flatlined in math.

“I want an 800,” Alvarado said. “As a principal, that’s my goal.”

Some Mission schools still have an achievement gap between minority students and Caucasian students.

Graphs and charts comparing Marshall Elementary’s recent API scores and those of other San Francisco Spanish immersion schools are taped together and cover the wall of Principal Peter Avila’s office.

Avila’s been analyzing the data since test scores were released last week. After years of improvement, Marshall’s API score dropped six points. This is also the first time since Avila took over as Marshall’s principal that all of the subgroups — Latinos, African Americans and socioeconomically disadvantaged students — did not improve their standardized test scores.

That fact weighs on Avila.

“We’re spending a lot of time looking at this data,” he said. “I wasn’t happy it went down. Unfortunately, there’s only one test to determine whether a school is a good school.”

Avila said he understands that schools need to be held accountable, but adds that it is frustrating that the Spanish proficiency test his students take isn’t factored into the school’s overall academic performance.

Marshall is a Spanish immersion school whose student body is 85 percent Latino. Seventy-seven percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch. For this reason, Avila is hard-pressed to find another urban immersion elementary school in the area that is similar to Marshall.

The graphs on the wall show the test scores of other immersion programs. Avila wants to see if there are similar schools that are performing better on the standardized tests. Maybe there’s an effective program out there that his school could adopt? He’s not finding much.

Between 2009 and 2011, Marshall increased its API score 69 points. The school focused on bringing those students who scored in the lowest tier of the standardized test up to the next level. The efforts were successful, and Marshall saw impressive gains in its academic performance. Continuing to improve at that rate has proven challenging, however.

“We’ve hit a plateau,” Avila said. “Our model needs to be changed based on the population we have.”

Marshall is reevaluating its kindergarten through second-grade English language curriculum to incorporate more instruction in English, Avila said. Right now, about 10 percent to 20 percent of the children’s lessons are taught in English. This makes it challenging for second-graders to take a standardized test in English. A more accurate reflection of students’ academic performance is the test they take in the fifth grade, he said.

Similar to Marshall Elementary, Mission High School has seen significant improvement in its standardized test scores in recent years. Between 2007 and 2010, Mission High’s API score improved 156 points.

This year, it dropped one point.

“We plateaued,” said Principal Eric Guthertz. “Mathematically, you’re going to plateau at some point.”

Guthertz is comforted that his students’ scores didn’t drop by much.

“If we went down 10 or 15 points, that would mean we were losing ground,” he said. “The California Standards Tests are important, but they’re one of a bunch of markers for us. Unfortunately, that’s not what the API reflects.”

The score doesn’t account for the 87 percent of Mission High School students who enrolled in college, Guthertz said. It doesn’t account for the school’s increasing attendance rates.

Avila praised forthcoming changes in the way California calculates schools’ academic performance. Legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September places less emphasis on standardized test scores.

The law states that standardized tests should account for no more than 60 percent of a school’s API score. The other 40 percent will consist of standards outlined by the state Board of Education and superintendent of public instruction. These may include graduation rates, dropout rates or the percentage of students who go on to college.

The alternative, Avila said, is more focus on test preparation. That means less time for art, music, physical education, the school’s gardening program and other subject areas that are important to a child’s education, but which don’t appear in a question on the state’s standardized test.

“We want the kids to enjoy coming to school,” he said. “It’s about finding a good balance.”

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