Evaluating Academics of Public Schools

Parent Q&A

How can I evaluate my school's academic performance? Jan 30, 2017 (2 responses below)
  • Hello, My wife and I are currently looking to buy a place somewhere in the Oakland/Berkeley/Albany/El Cerrito area and is it tough out there. We have two daughters who won't be kindergarten school age until 2020 and 2022. 

    My question is; What do parents with elementary school age kids that live in the north-west area of Oakland/Emeryville do for public schools?

    If greatschools is to be believed they're pretty bad, but I cannot believe it can be that bad or bad for long with the way the housing prices are spiking in those neighborhoods.

    Thanks in advance for any advice.

    When my daughter started kindergarten several years ago, our El Cerrito schools were ranked low, at around 2-3. In an effort to keep my life financially and geographically sane, I signed her up for our neighborhood school anyway and decided I would supplement outside of school as necessary. However, the academics, arts, social aspects, everything, were completely fine, despite the low ranking. It turned out that the school had many disabled and low income students who didn't test as well, but the curriculum at all public school is about the same. When my daughter got to middle school, the kids coming from a feeder school that ranked at 10 did much better and had much more academic confidence for the first semester, but after that everyone pretty much evened out. By high school you can't even tell which elementary school a student came from, everyone has acquired the basic skills and success is all about hard work and focus.

    Figuring out education in Oakland is complicated.  Roughly 55% of kids go to public schools, 15% go to charter schools and 30% go to private schools or homeschool.  The public school programs are not identical in each school.  This allows schools to offer specialized programs, but it makes the decisions harder.  Low income and ELL students sometimes score lower on tests than more affluent students, so the test scores do not necessarily reflect the quality of teaching at any given school.  GreatSchools.org is starting to show a rating score for low income students, and if there is a big gap between the overall score and the low income score, then I personally doubt that the quality of teaching is that good and the parents are doing more to lift affluent students scores than the teachers are.  There are a few public and charter schools that achieve high scores among all types of students, and the teaching quality is probably better at these schools.  

    Oakland's enrollment process is also unique--the Options process allows families to choose any school in OUSD and rank their options from 1-6.  There is intense competition for the most popular schools, so the top choice isn't guaranteed.  Yes, some schools have gentrified over the last few years (Peralta, Crocker Highlands), but there is no guarantee that a school will gentrify even if home prices are soaring.  Strong rent control laws and Prop 13 allow many longtime less affluent residents to stay where they are even if prices for newer arrivals are outrageously high.  Currently, families live near schools that they like or use the Options process to try to get in a school that they like.  If you choose a house that is zoned for a school that you don't want to attend, the enrollment process is very stressful.  After elementary school, many families move away because of the lack of good quality public middle schools in Oakland. 

    The school board is also considering changing the enrollment process next year to socio-economically integrate all the schools in Oakland.  If that happens, it is not clear how families will react nor what effect that would have on the schools.

    It's hard to recommend Oakland to families with young kids at this point in time.  The school situation is not very predictable right now, and it would be hard to ride out the California housing price fluctuations if you aren't happy with the school choices.  

    For more information, visit Gopublicschools.com or the OUSD website.

    Those schools really are pretty bad. 
    I was a student teacher there. The problem is one of funding, and I haven't seen gentrification in other parts of Oakland having any effect on struggling schools. Many of those parents who are paying a lot for housing are opting for charters or private schools. 

  • Dear parents,

    I was wondering whether you have any advice for me; how do you know that a 10 level school is really good? Is there any instituiton that I can hire to check the level and performance of  a subject taught at school? Eg. having my kids tested.  What are these instituitons/agencies? I have the feeling that our school is waisting my kids time,  and that the outcome is not so big. Interestingly, other parents mentioned the same issue with some subjects at school. 

    I would start by going to the California State Standards at http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/ to check if your child is being taught what they are supposed to be taught for their grade. You may be thinking, for example, that "my child is not getting enough science," or history, or math, etc. A 10 school means that at least 90% of students at the school know the grade-appropriate standards, not whether the school is necessarily "good" or "bad." The standards are the same for all public schools no matter their ranking.

    A couple websites I have used recently to research public schools are schooldigger and great schools.  You can search by your own school or compare to others in your area.  I'm sure there are more but those are a good start.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


GreatSchools score is very different from parent reviews

Feb 2012

I know this sounds like a totally generic question, but I'm at a loss. We are looking to buy a house in the southish Berkeley area or in Oakland, but am confused as to the seeming disconnect from the greatschools.com rating, the California school ratings (http://school-ratings.com/), and the effusive reviews that I see on greatschools and on BPN. For example, Melrose Leadership Academy gets a 3 out of 10 at greatschools, a 2 out of 10 from the Cal. schools ratings, but the reviews make it seem absolutely wonderful. What am I missing here? Is it the vibe you get when you visit? We don't want to buy a house where we hope to put down roots in the neighborhood, then feel stuck in the closest school if it's not meeting an average standard. I realize that you can apply to a different school in the district, but would guess that spots in the ''high performing'' schools (in neighborhoods we can't possibly afford) are at a premium and probably few and far between. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Confused parent

I'd live in Berkeley if you're going for public school. The bond measure passed several years ago protects our schools, and keeps class sizes small, equipment up to date, and teachers good, across the city. The zones used to vary quite a bit, and the schools within the zones. But nowadays there are very good schools in every zone, and there are no ''bad'' schools in Berkeley anymore. You can buy a house where you can afford one, and still have a chance to go to a school in a ''wealthy'' neighborhood, which is both good and bad. Having a school your kids can walk to is great, and your kids may very well be assigned to one quite far from your house. But it really makes all the schools even, as far as diversity and funding. Berkeley mom of 3

Hi -- I wanted to address your question about HOW and WHY to choose a particular school, in part b/c Melrose LA was on our very short list, but it is not where we enrolled out child.

We went through the search/enrollment process two years ago, for K enrollment, when she would have entered MLA as part of the year-2 cohort. We live in a neighborhood that is close to Melrose, but not walking distance. Both parents work in San Francisco, along the greater ''Van Ness'' corridor. Our choice was made by defining a workable ''school shed'' -- where the school was located was as important to us as the school scores. We also looked at scores, diversity, and if the school had a clear educational paradigm or philosophy we were comfortable with.

For Melrose: I really liked the parent-teacher community, they classroom vibe, the effective dual immersion, and the small schools paradigm. I knew that as a family where both parents work FT in SF, it would be VERY difficult to give the time and attention needed to a small evolving school. For Melrose, low scores come, I think, from MLA's history as a troubled low performing middle school.  The school has an unusual history, and the elementary school is new and literally ''untested'' -- the idea is to grow this community into an organic k-8 school. I found this VERY appealing.

Why did we not go with MLA? It did not work for us logistically as a family. The BEST SCHOOL will be a nightmare for the family if it does not work out at a practical and logistic level. I do not drive, and getting between my home, MLA and work in San Francisco on public transportation was not practical at all. My daughter was a young 4 y.o. kindergartener, and if she went to school in Oakland she would have an 11 hour day away from her parents. Faced with this we requested and got an inter-district transfer into the SFUSD; she is in our first choice school, which is equal distances between where I work and where my husband works (walking if necessary). The school she is at is very diverse, has a specific science/inquiry methodology, great stability of teaching staff, and incredible institutional longevity. The scores are high (not the highest, but the kids are performing at grade level on average). As it is, I leave the house before she wakes up in the morning. If she was in school in Oakland, I would not see her except for rushing her to get ready for bed. She commutes on BART and Muni in with my husband every day, and I pick her up from afterschool care, when we commute home on MUNI and BART. It is a long day for all of us, but we have time together which is so important. For us it came down to location, logistics, and finding a school that is ''good enough''.

I think the decision for Middle School will demand much greater attention to her needs -- academically and socially -- and demand more logistical sacrifice from my husband and me. For example, my daughter is still too young to walk around in our neighborhood alone, but when she is 9 it will be developmentally appropriate for her to want and need greater autonomy from us..... but it is NOT something I am comfortable with the idea of in our particular neighborhood. So, as you look for a new home, consider your comfort level at letting your child walk around alone or with friends at the age of 10-14, and consider your Middle School options very carefully. Sara

Using test scores to find good schools

Nov. 2003

I am a teacher in the Piedmont Unified School District, where test scores are nearly astronomical. It is definitely a reflection of the populous -- upper middle class, well-educated. Do the high test scores mean the schools are great? No. But are they great? Yes!

Test scores do not make a school great. Great teaching does. There are wonderful, creative, loving teachers at all schools in California (despite our low test scores). What is important to look for is a place your child can call home, feel safe, learn from her/his teacher and others, and be part of a community.

I would recommend looking for a strong learning community: who is involved in the classroom? Teachers? How many years experience do they have? How stable is the teaching and administrative staff? What about support staff? Are parents visible and helping in the classroom too? If not, why not? Do the children look happy and engaged? Or is there relative chaos and wandering about the hallways? Is work proudly displayed and up-to-date? Are there special schoolwide events?

Berkeley public schools are terrific. I have 2 nephews who attend John Muir and love it. Plus Berkeley is such a community, and public schools are all about the community we (hopefully) embrace. I firmly believe that parents getting and remaining involved can make ANY school a success for their kids and for their community.

Incidentally, I could as an employee of Piedmont schools send my kids there (as many of my colleagues do), but I choose instead to be a part of my city's (SF) public educational system and LOVE it, for entirely different reasons than I love the schools in Piedmont. I encourage you and everyone to be a part of taking real, positive control of and interest in YOUR public schools. Thanks for listening. Esther

If you are selecting a school, whether it's public or private, based primarily on test scores, please be aware that small differences in test scores are unlikely to be statistically significant. Among the private schools which are at the more academic end of the spectrum, many have published their ERB scores, and you'll find scores mostly in the 89-99th percentile. Similarly, some of the public schools which are most popular tend to have CLAS scores in the 90's.

In comparing ERB scores, it is tempting to conclude that a school with scores in the 97th percentile must be better than a school with scores in the 92nd percentile. But there are several reasons why this is not proven by the test scores. First of all, the number of students tested at each school is relatively small, and the use of percentiles rather than standard scores for comparison means that a rigorous test for statistical significance cannot be used. In other words, the differences at this level are well within the realm of chance differences.

Furthermore, some schools test kids before they enter, so that they are already preselecting those who test well, and high test scores may reflect that type of selectivity rather than superior teaching methods.

As for CLAS scores, at the California Department of Education website which you'll find the most recent scores (1994!) as well as data which compares each school to others with similar demographics (level of parent education or income), in order to tell you whether that school is doing better or worse than comparable schools. Obviously schools in more affluent areas (Piedmont, Orinda, Ross, etc.) will have higher scores than those in more diverse communities. But again, is it because the schools themselves are excellent, or because the parents have higher education levels and resources? The comparative statistics help with that part of the picture. But test scores are still only part of the picture. The teachers, administration, parents, facilities, and programs are not as easily quantified.


Re public vs. private school: unfortunately comparisons are not easy to make. The private schools use a private school test score comparison that doesn't compare apples to apples with the test scores used by the public schools. The district office (located next to Cornell) has school reports on each elementary school that you can pick up and which tell the state test scores. All the schools follow the same state authorized curriculum. The private schools are extremely varied in emphasis. Your decision between public and private is therefore governed by your own values, finances, and gut about what is best and do-able for your child/your family. My own feeling is that unfortunately Kindergarten is the hardest year for deciding what to do because of the aftercare issue. With only 3 hours of school you may find your choice has to be what session of kindergarten (am or pm) you need, and that will dictate what school and what teacher you wind up with. When you register you can state a preference, but the district tells you up front that you may not get your choice of session or school, even if your choice is your closest school. This is because the new 20kids per class has wrecked havoc with the space available at different schools. Keep in mind that when picking an elementary school you are choosing not just for Kindergarten but K-5. If you want your child to walk to school with you and have playmates that are close to where you live, you may prefer to request your local school...but since Albany is really small it may not be such a big deal to go to any of the 4 elementary schools. Some people like the small feel of Vista and McGregor since they only go to grade 2 (funneled to Cornell and Marin in higher grades). You just have to visit and get a feel yourself. Also I would urge you to meet the principal and administration in your school. If you are unhappy with any aspect of your child's classroom or teacher these are the people you will need to deal with. Do you feel like they are responsive? In my limited observing I have seen good teaching at Albany schools. The differences between public and private can sometimes be in the teaching styles and sizes of classrooms and the physical facilities and amenities (extra options like music, science). Also, the kids in the public schools have perhaps more diversity in race, income and special needs.

As an educational researcher, I have visited schools around the state and the country to study or evaluate various programs. I would like to et everybody on this list know that:
1. test scores (especially ones based on norm-referenced tests like STAR) correlate with parents' level of education/income and have virtually nothing to do with the kind of teaching that takes place in a school. The exception of course is schools who devote ridiculous amounts of curricular time to test prep, as has been the case in Texas.)
2. a distinguished schools designation often reflects that a school was able to find the funds to get a competent grant writer or teacher to sell their school to the department of ed, and again may have little to do with the actual quality of teaching.

I have been in distinguished schools with high test scores that are horribly inhumane to children, especially non-white children or children with special needs. I have also been in schools where test scores are abysmal but I would send a child there in a heartbeat because the teachers are both challenging and caring.

Unless you are concerned about the parent income/education of your child's peer group, test scores will not tell you much. I encourage you to visit the schools yourselves, talk to parents whose children attend those schools, and raise any specific concerns about your child's learning needs.


How to find out about public schools

October 2001

A site called greatschools.net provides the ability to search on individual public schools for their test scores. Last year I went through all the Oakland schools in my area (Hillcrest, Chabot, Thornhill and Joaquin Miller) and created a spreadsheet of the data so I could compare. I also looked over some of the other schools in Oakland to see how things stacked up. The previous posting is correct in stating these schools have extremely high scores compared to the rest of the city. There is so much disparity in fact that you quickly see why Oakland is and needs to be concerned about the state of public education here.

A website with listings, tests scores, etc. of Oakland public schools is www.greatschools.net. They will send you email updates and are very helpful if you need more information than what is available on their website.

I would recommend (1) visiting the school; and/or (2) talking to parents. You should ask to sit in on one or two teachers' classes. You can get an idea of the kinds of curriculum and activities that the school uses, something that test scores do not measure at all, and also get a sense of how the teachers interact with the children. Many elementary school principals would probably be too busy to talk to you individually, but you should take it as a positive sign if the school has some kind of regular meeting or method for parent-school communication. Some elementary schools actually have parents who volunteer as community liaisons. Ilana

In order to get a feel for the elementary schools in our area I went to the scheduled events that many schools have that introduce you to some of the teachers, the principal, a few parents and some of the programs and activities that the school has to offer. The best gauge for me however was visiting the schools while they were in session. There's nothing like seeing the children and teachers in action. I'm content with the choice that I made and feel confident that this was the best method to choose our child's school. Even though her school does not have the best district scores she has done well and continues to thrive in the public school environment. Suzanna