Characteristics of California School Districts in Program Improvement

Primary Researchers: Eric Crane, Kenwyn Derby, Aditi Goel, Kevin (Chun-Wei) Huang, Reino Makkonen

Publication Date: July 2008

This descriptive analysis provides a statistical profile of California's Title I school districts in program improvement in 2006/07. As California continues to develop and refine its district intervention strategies, this profile can inform the critical work on districts in improvement.

Finding this study helpful, California policymakers and support providers requested an update the following year. REL West used the same methodology to produce the 2008 update.

To download a 2-page summary click here.

Research Questions

The REL West research team began with two guiding sets of questions. The first set concerned the characteristics of districts in program improvement:

  • What is the distribution of districts in program improvement by district size and density, improvement status, and overall achievement levels?
  • What are the demographic features of the student populations in districts in program improvement?
  • What type and amount of staff support is available in districts in program improvement? How are financial resources spent in these districts?

The second set of questions looked within districts and focused on divergences between the school- and district-level accountability systems:

  • What percentage of students in districts in program improvement are enrolled in schools in improvement?
  • What percentage of students in districts in program improvement are enrolled in schools that have been in improvement for more than five years (and are therefore now in corrective action)?
  • How common is it for a district to have an accountability status that differs from the schools in the district?
  • What accountability provisions are related to inconsistencies between the reasons for 2005/06 adequate yearly progress classifications of districts and of schools in those districts?


To generate a statistical profile of California's districts in program improvement, REL West researchers acquired online demographic, assessment, and accountability data from the California Department of Education. Most data were collected in May 2007. Financial and staffing data and information about the rural-urban characteristics of districts were downloaded from the federal Common Core of Data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2007).

The research team then merged datasets to link key variables, and investigated district and school characteristics using descriptive statistics, including frequency distributions, cross-tabulations, measures of central tendency (the median), and measures of variability (e.g., interquartile range).

Key Findings

Data analysis for this study revealed that the district level of California's accountability system is identifying problems that are missed at the school level. While such inconsistencies may appear counter-intuitive at first, they reflect the effectiveness of a two-level accountability system — with the district-level system picking up, monitoring, and being accountable for students missed by the school-level system.

In 2006/07, California had 961 school districts receiving Title I funds (and therefore were subject to No Child Left Behind [NCLB] accountability), with 10,290 schools. Of these districts, 159 (17 percent) were in program improvement. Districts in program improvement served 42 percent of all California public school enrollment (more than 2.6 million students).

An examination of how California's Title I districts did on individual adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements under the NCLB Act reveals that in 2005/06 (the year on which the 2006/07 program improvement designations were based):

  • 207 districts (78 of them in program improvement) failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) on at least one requirement, even though all their schools did so on the same requirement.
  • 24 districts failed to make AYP in the aggregate, even though not one school in those districts failed to do so.

Further, in 2006/07, four districts in program improvement had no schools identified for improvement. In these cases, the districts were held accountable for certain student subgroups whose performance was not tracked by the school-level accountability rules because there were too few students in the subgroup at each school to meet the minimum subgroup size (100 or more) in California for reporting under NCLB. This occurred most often for the students with disabilities subgroup.

Compared with other districts, districts in program improvement:

  • tended to be larger, with more schools and more students (though 5 of the 10 largest districts were not identified for improvement);
  • were more frequently located in urban settings;
  • had more English learner students and students with disabilities;
  • were more likely to be held accountable for the test performance of these two subgroups and disproportionately failed to meet the proficiency targets for these two subgroups (among all districts that were accountable for these subgroups); and
  • had higher proportions of Hispanic, Black, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Moving forward, California's districts in program improvement face substantial challenges, as only 22 of the 159 districts in program improvement made AYP in 2005/06.

Implications for Research and Practice

Additional study of the differences between student populations in districts in program improvement and other districts, especially within the same subgroup designation, could shed more light on the differences in academic performance across school districts. The use of new primary data (perhaps collected through surveys or targeted interviews) could offer more nuanced insights on certain key issues, including whether and how the education needs of students in districts in program improvement and other districts differ from each other.

A future study could also explore differences in support for these subgroups, including whether districts not identified for improvement are employing useful education strategies or offering more specialized supports that might be transferable to districts in program improvement. Differences in the education needs of students in different types of districts could also be studied to see whether these subgroups face additional challenges in districts in program improvement.

Because of the many adequate yearly progress discrepancies between districts and their schools related to students with disabilities, the state might consider focusing its district-level interventions on coordinating special education services across schools. The impact of California's District Assistance and Intervention Team process will be of interest to both researchers and state policymakers in the coming years. Furthermore, as accountability rules and intervention approaches will be shaped by reauthorization of the NCLB Act, an update of this study once these areas are defined in reauthorization would be useful.

Study Limitations

The aim of this study was to document basic descriptive information about California districts in program improvement and to compare them with other districts. As a result, the study relied on publicly available demographic, assessment, accountability, financial, and staffing data. Although this report documents the performance differences for certain subgroups that relate to — and in some cases drive — improvement status, the reasons for the performance differences cannot be determined with the data available to this study. Students may differ in important ways in districts in improvement and in districts not identified for improvement, including initial achievement before entering the district and access to resources outside of school that support learning and achievement. Thus, the reasons for the observed differences in performance cannot be identified in this study.


  • Published: July 2008
  • Research Type: Issues & Answers
  • Methodologies: Descriptive
  • Contact info:
    Eric Crane 916.492.4080

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