Two of Laguna Beach Unified's four schools had academic performance gains, according to statistics released last week by the state Department of Education.

El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools improved their Academic Performance Index scores, while Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School saw declines.

The district as a whole dropped five points to 918 from 923 in 2012 for the API, compiled from standardized tests across different content areas such as English-language arts, mathematics, history and science.

Top of the World led the way with an 11-point gain, up to 934 from 923 in 2012, while El Morro improved by three points, to 924 from 921, according to the California Department of Education website. API scores range from 200 to 1,000 and measure growth for individual schools and districts.

Top of the World Principal Ron LaMotte attributed the rise to the school's systems of support, which focus on challenging every student academically.

In math, this includes students using critical-thinking to solve a problem, LaMotte said.

"It's moving away from rote memorization to a cognitively-guided approach and asking, 'What ways can we attack this problem?'" LaMotte said. "Students are talking and using creative ways to solve a problem, which helps them understand the concepts."

Laguna Beach High School dropped nine points to 897 from 906 in 2012, while Thurston Middle School declined 18 points, to 931 from 949 a year ago.

Thurston Principal Jenny Salberg couldn't pinpoint a reason for the school's decline from a year ago, saying the decrease was across the board.

"We worked just as hard; the only thing I can think of is [transition] to the new Common Core [state standards]," Salberg said.

Laguna Beach Unified Supt. Sherine Smith concurred with Salberg's observation that Common Core-- a new set of tests making their way through the state's schools that emphasize interpretation, critical thinking and writing -- might have affected API scores.

"LBUSD is a high performing school district, achieving at the state benchmark for excellence, yet we always examine our data and results to see if there are areas in which we can improve," Smith wrote in an email. "We will do the same this year and use our insights to improve our practice where necessary. 

"In California, we expect a state-wide decrease in CST [California Standards Test] scores next year as we shift our focus," Smith said. "The CSTs are not fully aligned with the Common Core. Subjects will be taught in different chunks and in different grades. More time will be spent on mastery. The API will evolve to incorporate more elements of the Common Core.

"We need to take time to dig into the data and see how it compares to our other assessment data. For example, we will look at [Advanced Placement], ACT and SAT scores to gain context [for the API scores] as well as internal assessments, such as teacher tests."

Even with the decreases, students at Thurston, Laguna Beach High, El Morro and Top of the World exceeded the state's benchmark.

All four district schools received A's, meaning they scored at or above 800, the state's performance target, the education department website said.

The state's overall API decreased two points to 789 this year from 791 a year ago, according to the education department.