The state's school report card, a grade based on standardized test scores, was released this week and revealed that four more Merced County schools are making the grade this year.
In total, 17 schools achieved the statewide Academic Performance Index goal, which is a set score of 800, according to the California Department of Education (CDE).
Schools that are new to the state's "800 club" are Thomas Olaeta Elementary School in Atwater; Schendel Elementary School in Delhi; John Muir Elementary School and Cruickshank Middle School in Merced.
Sandi Hamilton, principal of John Muir, said she couldn't be happier for this achievement.
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The school scored 806, a 36-point leap from its spring 2009 score of 769.
Ninety percent of the school's population is considered low-income because they qualify for free and reduced cost lunches, and this group of students has historically had a harder time becoming proficient in math and English, Hamilton said.
"For a school like ours, it's a heavy thing for our school to do," she said.
API, which is based on the test results and the progress from year to year on standardized tests taken by students in second through 12th grade, is based on a 200- to 1,000-point scale.
API scores serve as the main accountability measure for the state, and the goal set by the state is for all schools to reach 800.
The school with the highest score in the county is McSwain Elementary School at 871.
Other schools that had major jumps in their API were Merced High School, Shaffer Elementary School in Atwater, Le Grand High School, Westside Elementary in Los Banos and Joe Stefani Elementary School in Merced.
Merced High improved its score by 47 points to 779, the highest API out of all the schools in the Merced Union High School District.
"A 47-point (improvement) is something surreal, but it's not enough," said Anthony Johnson, associate principal of Merced High School. "There are still students who need help, so we are still trying to improve our program."
Joe Stefani School improved its score by 69 points to 784.
"We're only 16 points away from our 800 goal," said Connie Hadley, the school's principal. "We expect to make 800 next year and we will look closely at the data and determine an educational plan for every student."
Nineteen schools declined in their test scores, according to CDE data.
The biggest decrease was Cressy Elementary School, which fell 13 points to 707.
Although Merced County made strides in reaching that 800 mark, the county still struggled making the federal standards of school improvement, referred to as the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
Out of more than 70 schools, 16 schools made AYP.
AYP is a moving target set by No Child Left Behind legislation. It states that a certain percentage of students must be proficient in math and English-language arts each year.
In 2002, that percentage was 13 percent. This year, that target was set at 56 percent in English-language arts and 58 percent in math. Next year, 68 percent of students need to be proficient in both subjects.
Lee Andersen, county superintendent of schools, said the federal mandate is becoming difficult to meet.
"The federal measurement is becoming more and more impossible to pass," he said. "There are few schools that meet that. By 2014, there will be no schools to pass AYP, which shows that the system needs to be modified to reflect reality."
Schools are required to have 100 percent proficiency by 2014, according to No Child Left Behind.
When a school doesn't meet federal standards for two years in a row, it's slotted for "program improvement."
John Muir had been in program improvement for eight years until this year when students finally met AYP, an achievement that few schools in the state have met, Hamilton said.
The school made AYP in 2005, but failed to do so in 2006, Hamilton added.
More than 50 schools in Merced County have been in program improvement for at least a year.
Schools and districts in program improvement must submit detailed plans to improve student performance and offer parents the option of transferring their students.
Schools and districts in the sixth year of program improvement must begin writing plans to overhaul the existing structures in the schools. This can include plans to re-open as a charter school, replace all or most of the staff or allow state takeover.
John Muir has been through this process for a number of years, but next year marks the first year it won't.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.