Doing Your Homework on School Districts

robert.niles@latimes.com

Parents can find out how well a school is performing by checking its students' average standardized test scores online.

"Of course, test scores don't tell the whole story, but they give you a good general barometer to the quality of the school district," said Andrea Healey, a real estate agent in Westlake Village who regularly refers her clients to state Web sites for school information.

The California Department of Education publishes school test scores, as well as enrollment, staffing, demographic and dropout information, on its DataQuest Web site, at http://data1.cde.ca.gov/dataquest.

Parents looking to compare schools or districts will want to look at the department's Academic Performance Index, or API. The API is a scale, from 200 to 1,000, that measures a school's academic performance. The index is based on a school's average score on the Stanford 9, a standardized basic-skills test given each spring to kids in grades 2 through 11.

To check API scores, go to the DataQuest site and select "Academic Perf. Index (API)" in the drop-down box labeled "Subject," on the left side of the page.

Index scores can be viewed for an individual school or for all the schools in a specific school district or county. Use the second drop-down box, labeled "Level," to decide how the scores should be displayed. (Ignore the "State" option, as that will only bring up a page that asks you to select one of the other options.)

API "base reports" are available for either the 1999 or 2000 school year. The results pages show not only a school's API but also its rank relative to other schools in the state. A 1 in this category, for example, means that the school scored in the bottom 10% of California public schools. A 2 means the school scored among the next 10%, and so on.

In general, schools with wealthier students do better on standardized tests. So the API results page also ranks schools against others with similar demographics. Look under the column labeled "Similar Schools Rank" for that number. A 10 here means that a school's students scored among the best in the state compared with similar schools.

People who want to look directly at a school's Stanford 9 scores will find them at http://star.cde.ca.gov/star2000f/search.html. Search by county, district or school name, then click on a school's name to see its scores.

The results page will show the national percentile rank for the school's average Stanford 9 score in each grade--anything above 50 here means the school scored better than average. The page also will show what percentage of a school's students scored at or above the 75th, 50th and 25th national percentiles.

For information about schools outside California, visit the National Center for Education Statistics at http://nces.ed.gov. The center publishes information on all levels of education, from preschool to graduate school. Go directly to http://nces.ed.gov/ccdweb/school/school.asp to search for information on specific public elementary and secondary schools. Test scores for individual schools are not available, but the site does have enrollment and demographic information.

Finally, for a general view of how well students nationwide are doing, visit the Nation's Report Card at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard. The report card tracks national performance over time on a variety of assessment tests.

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Robert Niles is a producer for Latimes.com.

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