Today the report cards contain 108 data points for each school — including the percentage of staff who report feeling "commitment and collaboration" — but no value-added score.
Esperanza Elementary's name in Spanish means "hope," though the school would seem to have little reason for it.
Its API score is 670, far short of the state goal of 800. For six years it has also failed to meet federal benchmarks, putting it at risk of takeover or closure.
But when the school, west of downtown Los Angeles, is judged by the progress students make in math and English, Esperanza ranks among the top 20% of district elementary schools, the analysis found. On average, students started third grade in the 39th percentile districtwide and ended it 11 points higher. In English, they started in the 26th percentile and gained 10 points.
This is despite some tough challenges: Students at Esperanza are mostly low-income and still learning English. For some of their parents, Spanish is a second language after their native Mayan tongues of Quiche or Kanjobal.
"We're under constant scrutiny, and we're under a lot of pressure to improve," said Principal Felicia Michell. "We're doing good work here, yet you don't get the recognition for those efforts."
Though the district has chosen not to use value-added, Michell long ago saw the benefit of even the most basic test score analysis.
Several years ago, she began holding meetings with teachers in which she projected their students' test scores on a wall and asked the instructors to discuss why some of the teachers were doing better than others.
"You had to be very careful at first," Michell said. "We're trying not to alienate any teachers."
Initially resistant, teachers began to recognize areas where they needed help.
"You start to question yourself, and that's the whole point of this," said Lynda Ayala, a veteran first-grade teacher at Esperanza, who was shown scores from periodic assessments of her students. "Eventually it gives you the freedom of knowing that even as a seasoned teacher you can say, 'This isn't working.'"
Ayala was struggling to get through to two of her students who had yet to learn the sounds of letters. An instructional coach suggested she pull them aside for five to seven minutes a day to focus on that area. By the end of the year, the two were reading at nearly grade level.
"Lynda became a believer," said Michell, a point Ayala confirmed. "Her fellow teachers saw that and decided to follow her lead."
Such self-scrutiny appears to be paying off, the Times analysis found. Yet by official measures, Esperanza's gains don't count.
It's not the only school whose success has been largely unheralded.
In recent years, Maywood Elementary has been the most effective elementary school in the district at raising student test scores. On average, students in second through fifth grades started the school year in the 39th percentile in math and ended it 30 points higher. Gains in English were smaller but still dramatic: 20 points. (The school's API has also risen significantly, to 830.)
Much of the credit again appears to go to the principal, a hands-on administrator who had the advantage of building the school from scratch. Before Maywood opened five years ago, Lupe Hernandez decided to visit the classrooms of nearly every teacher who had expressed interest in working at the school. She worked around rules that favor seniority by blatantly discouraging the teachers she wasn't impressed with.
"I told them straight out, 'You don't meet the caliber of what I'm looking for at Maywood,'" she said.