At Tuesday night's school board meeting, the new data on student achievement sparked debate about how much the district has been able to close its achievement gap.
LaToya Baldwin, a representative from Parent Advocates for Student Success, criticized the board, asking why the district hasn't made more progress with disadvantaged students.
"I'm still trying to understand this idea that we should celebrate what we've done," she said. "The honest truth is that Palo Alto is still doing really poorly by especially black students, Hispanic students and low socioeconomic-status students."
Within the world of API, the magic number is 800, which is the state's standard for proficiency. Four subgroups within the Palo Alto school district have yet to hit that mark: African American students (761), Hispanic or Latino (795), socioeconomically disadvantaged (768) and students with disabilities (734).
All of those subgroups' scores did improve from last year. Students with disabilities had the greatest uptick — 31 points.
Asian and white students came out well above 800. Asian students' score is 976 and white students' 941.
The district's overall API score for 2013 is 932, down one point from last year. The number comes from 9,247 second through 11th graders who were tested. Santa Clara County was also down one point and the state, two.
Though Palo Alto ranked fifth out of the top 10 unified school districts in California, its subgroup scores are not high across the board as in other districts.
At Manhattan Beach Unified School District, ranked third out of the top 10, African American students score at 839, Asian at 968, Hispanic or Latino at 901, white at 938, socioeconomically disadvantaged at 859 and students with disabilities at 778. Palo Alto is the only district in the top five with four subgroups below the 800 mark.
Demographic data was also presented, showing that Palo Alto Unified has higher percentages of some of these subgroups than other higher performing districts. Nine percent of Palo Alto students are socioeconomically disadvantaged; none of the top four districts break 4 percent.
Baldwin countered the idea that having a greater percentage of disadvantaged students than other districts makes it more difficult to raise each group's scores.
"We're still really talking about small numbers of kids," she said. "So 9 percent of whatever's in Palo Alto versus 3 percent of whatever's in another district; it's not really that big of a difference."
She also argued that districts with fewer disadvantaged kids might actually have a harder time reaching them and providing them with necessary services.
Board members were quick to concede that there's still much progress to be made but emphasized that the improvement by these subgroups — however slow — should not go ignored.
"I don't want anyone out there to think that the people sitting here don't care about students who aren't performing as well as they could because the aides in this district, the teachers in this district, the administrators in this district and the school board all want to see better learning and boost the learning of all of our struggling students," school board President Dana Tom said.
"And that's why it's been a part of the last Strategic Plans; that's why it's been a part of every annual focused goals — because we know we want to do better."
He also said the achievement gap has indeed closed in the past five years. Between 2008 and 2013, the gap was reduced 55 points for African American students, 47 points for Latino students and 55 points for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, he said.
The board's discussion of the API scores included suggestions for how to do better: bring in teachers, parents and students for focus groups to understand what's going on; look to other higher performing districts to see what they're doing that Palo Alto isn't; analyze more nuanced issues such as transportation challenges that keep students from attending after-school programs or the unique issues that transfer students face.
We Can Do Better Palo Alto founder Ken Dauber also spoke at the meeting, further analyzing the API data. He looked at the scores through a larger statewide prism, noting that Palo Alto's Asian and white students' API scores rank second in the state but the district's other groups fall significantly behind. African American students are 62nd in the state, Hispanic students 55th and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, 112th, he said.
"Other top-ranked districts, it's important to note, don't match this pattern," Dauber said.
But, he said, comparing Palo Alto to other districts should not be about rankings but rather recognizing opportunity for change.
"The point of this comparison isn't to castigate the district. It's to say actually that what these other high-ranking districts show is that it is possible to be high ranking not just for advantaged students, but also for disadvantaged students. And that that possibility is one that we should investigate."
Superintendent Kevin Skelly responded that Dauber's analysis is accurate.
"I think that all of us are dedicated to getting these numbers up and want to see higher scores," he said. "We do take some pleasure in the fact that the results are going in the right direction, yet we've got a long way to go."
In other business, the school board also briefly discussed its budget on Tuesday evening.
The 2013-14 budget, officially adopted in June, counts on a 2 percent increase in property-tax revenue over 2012-13.
The Santa Clara County Controller estimates the actual 2013-14 property tax revenue will come in at $126.5 million — 6.56 percent higher than last year. (Property taxes for the 2012-13 year ended about $190,600 lower than expected, closing out at approximately $118.8 million.) The final property tax revenue for the 2013-14 year will not be determined until July 2014, after the fiscal year has ended.
The budget update also touched on the district's reserves, which totaled about $24 million at the end of the 2012-13 school year, or 13.9 percent of the general-fund budget. Reserves include the reserve for economic uncertainties, the unrestricted and undesignated balance, and the basic-aid reserve.
Because revenue exceeded expenditures last year by more than 3 percent, the board agreed to add a minimum of $1.6 million to the basic-aid reserve, according to its policy, upping that reserve's projected balance to $11.3 million (including budgeted interest income).
The basic-aid reserve is used only to fund non-recurring district expenses, such as instructional materials, and capital outlay projects, such as the revamping or expansion of facilities, deferred maintenance, property acquisition and the purchase of equipment and furniture, according to the school district.
The board will hear and discuss more information about the basic-aid reserve, Common Core expenditure plan, proposed program additions and staffing formula in November.