School rankings stoke friendly competition

La Cañada High School placed 39th among its California peers in the 2012 U.S. News & World Report rankings released May 7, and at least one school supporter was justifiably pleased.

“We are very proud of LCHS for nationally ranking in the top 1% of high schools,” read a tweet posted the next day. “And for coming in ahead of San....”

Though the sentence trailed off, those familiar with local public education needed no explanation.

The tweet was the latest salvo in the long-running, albeit genial, academic arms race between California's most elite unified school districts — San Marino and La Cañada — where expectations, rigor and scores run sky high.


FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story misstated the identity of the person who sent the tweet.


San Marino High School finished 42nd in the U.S. News rankings for California this year. Its parent district has for several years held the No. 1 position on the widely referenced California Academic Performance Index, with La Cañada Unified No. 2.

Other San Gabriel Valley districts are not far behind. Arcadia and South Pasadena this year ranked No. 8 and No. 12, respectively, in the index.

Who's counting? No one at the schools. Or so they say.

“Getting high scores is nice, and reaffirms what you are doing, but I don't think we use that as a primary indicator of success,” said South Pasadena school board member Richard Sonner.

Consumer-based school rankings are good for selling publications and little else, according to San Marino Supt. Loren Kleinrock.

“It is always better to be ranked at the top than trying to explain why you are not,” Kleinrock said. “That said, we always try to be excellent in everything. We do the best we can in everything.”

Yet rankings never seem completely out of mind. They come up at school board meetings and PTA events, in residential real estate sales pitches and on school district websites.

Both the La Cañada and San Marino school districts post press releases touting the most recent API scores.

“In 2008, there was a 27-point difference between San Marino and LCUSD,” La Cañada Unified's statement reads. “The scores then were 944 and 917, respectively. The difference is now reduced to only 13 points. Each year since 2008 La Cañada's API has improved at a greater rate than San Marino.”

Meanwhile, the students who generate the scores say they pay them little heed, though they are conscious of the excitement and angst the rankings generate.

In March, the staff at The Spartan, the La Cañada High School student newspaper, drafted a faux news story for the April Fool's edition reporting that La Cañada Unified had slipped to third place state-wide, or as the story put it, “the greatest tragedy the town has ever witnessed.”

Administrators requested that the joke headline be changed to read fifth place, senior class president and Spartan editor Kevork Kurdoghlian said. The explanation? If parents read about a drop to No. 3 they might believe it, while slipping to No. 5 clearly would be a farce.

“They took it pretty seriously,” Kurdoghlian said.

Given their similarities and proximity to each other, it is natural for the districts to keep an eye on one another, officials said.

“It is a fun and, for the most part, a healthy competition,” said Kleinrock, who indicated the view from the top is nice. “We would not be happy if we slipped to No. 2, I think that is safe to say.”

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