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Report cards score schools

Parents in Los Angeles this week will receive a one-page report card that will provide a less varnished and more accessible picture of how well their child’s school is doing.

For high schools, the report card will provide more accurate dropout figures and display, for example, how many students are proficient in English and math -- and whether that number is going up or down. Much of the information is available elsewhere, but some nuggets can be found only on the report card, such as what percentage of 10th-graders are on track to attend college.

Such statistics are available because the Los Angeles Unified School District has been collecting information on individual students for about a decade. But until now, the nation’s second-largest school system didn’t volunteer much data beyond what the state required.

“Many parents are going to be alarmed because this is real information,” said Mike McGalliard, who heads MLA Partners Schools, a nonprofit leading reform efforts at Manual Arts High School south of downtown.

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McGalliard applauds the effort, despite a sobering picture for Manual Arts: 3% of students are proficient in math; 13% in English. Moreover, only 13% of sophomores are on track to qualify for admission to a University of California or Cal State campus. And only 37% of Manual Arts students from the class of 2008 graduated on time.

This abysmal on-time graduation rate, which the district is now providing to parents, is a starker statistic than the school’s most recent official graduation rate of 76%, as calculated by the state.

New York City, which assigns a letter grade to every school, is among a handful of school districts to issue such report cards.

“Not a lot of districts have done it, and not a lot have done it at this level of breadth,” said Marshall Tuck, a top education advisor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

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In the past, the district leaned heavily toward selecting data that demonstrated success or progress while downplaying or submerging difficult truths, Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said.

“Some administrators use data selectively,” said Cortines, who will unveil the report cards at a news conference today. “I want both the bad and good, and I don’t want it sugarcoated.”

Tuck and Cortines were instrumental in pushing forward the new report card. After Villaraigosa failed in an attempt to gain control of L.A. Unified, his team settled for authority over 10 low-performing schools. Cortines headed that effort as a deputy mayor, and Tuck worked for him.

Funding to develop the report cards came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Cortines and Tuck had intended to gauge progress at the mayor’s schools but Cortines expanded the effort districtwide after he joined L.A. Unified last April. (He became district superintendent Jan. 1.)

The Boston Consulting Group designed the report card with input from focus groups across the school system. Cortines acknowledged that there has been some bureaucratic resistance: Some administrators criticized the consultants as unneeded, overpriced or educationally shallow.

The school system planned to mail report cards today to every household at a cost of about $700,000 -- just over $1 per student. Only a handful of charter schools are included in this round because they use different data systems.

The consultants also helped create a program that will give teachers more information on how individual students are performing. That system is being tested in 37 schools.

Reporting data on students and schools has been an evolving process. The state is developing its own system to track students individually. And California has long required School Accountability Report Cards, which debuted as lengthy, arcane documents filled with jargon and boilerplate text that critics said were designed more to obfuscate than illuminate.

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Those documents, posted online, have improved in recent years, but can still be difficult to interpret. They include, for example, the number and rate of suspensions without explaining how to interpret the data or offering comparisons with other schools.

Parents will receive a work in progress. Missing for now are measures to evaluate teaching, school culture, safety, and satisfaction among students and parents. Developing these parameters could prove challenging.

Characterizing the dimensions of a school with numbers or on a single page is difficult in any format.

Manual Arts, for instance, now has student artwork displayed all over campus and a science club that remade a ragged yard between buildings into a permanent display of plant biomes.

The report also has no category for last year’s struggle between the faculty and a principal -- who ultimately departed -- over diverging visions of the school’s future.

Nor is there a place for the results of a recent school survey that found one of the small academies did particularly well at developing bonds between teachers and students -- an element considered crucial to lowering dropout rates.

Less than a decade ago, Manual Arts became notorious for manipulating data, falsely claiming that 100% of its graduates completed UC admissions requirements, that 80% enrolled in college and that nearly every ninth-grader graduated on schedule. The apparent success won the principal a photo op with then-President Bill Clinton before revelations cost the administrator his job.

In contrast, last week, ninth-grade coordinator Jose Miguel Kubes told visitors that 120 ninth-graders flunked all their first-semester classes, and another 120 failed one or more. Staff members, he said, were meeting with each student to find out why and develop an individual recovery plan.

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One element missing from the report card is a summary score or grade for each school. Cortines said he is inclined to leave it that way. “I think you give them the facts. I give credit to the intelligence of the parents and community to figure it out.”

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howard.blume@latimes.com


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