Test Scores Don’t Always Determine a School’s Popularity

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Last month, San Francisco parents submitted their school choice lists.  If demand during the 2017 academic year is any indication, Lowell High School, A.P. Giannini Middle School and Clarendon Elementary School will be the most popular requests at their respective levels.

San Francisco parents submit as many choices as they want into the school lottery system – for the 2017 academic year, 53 parents ranked their preferences for all 70 elementary schools – in order of preference, as children reach pre-kindergarten, elementary, middle school and high school levels, or if they want to transfer schools. The task of choosing the right school, and getting admitted to it, can be arduous.  San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) literature states that the student assignment system “creates tensions” in balancing parents’ desire to receive a select assignment with the need to “create a robust enrollment for all schools.”

According to Rachel Nip, program director for Parents for Public Schools, a nonprofit that assists families through the enrollment process, a multitude of factors make schools more or less appealing to applicants, including location, language programs, whether a sibling attends and student body size. Nip advises families to look beyond standardized test scores. “Some of the hidden gem schools, they don’t have high test scores, but families are very happy with them,” she said.

Test scores don’t necessarily reveal the quality of instruction or number of support positions – guidance counselors, library aides, special education teachers – at a school. As one parent told the View, “You have to parse aggregate data down to subgroups to get anything meaningful from it. If high poverty students are doing well at a school, that tells me more about the school and that it must be doing something right.”

Nonetheless, test scores can be a compelling factor when there are large discrepancies between the highest and lowest performing schools. The state requires students to be tested from third to eighth grades, and then again in 11th grade. The Smart Balance exam, which has been used for three years, places students in four categories: did not meet standard, nearly met standard, met standard or exceeded standard. For easier evaluation, the latter two are often combined into a passing grade.

At the high school level, Lowell is by far the prize assignment, with a bit more than one-third of applicants for the 2017 academic year listing it as their first choice. Annually ranked by several national publications as among the country’s best high schools, it’s one of just two SFUSD schools for which acceptance is by merit, not solely by lottery. The other is the more specialized Ruth Asawa School for the Arts.

In standardized tests administered last year, Lowell topped all San Francisco schools in English and math, with 94.6 percent and 89.6 percent meeting or exceeding standards. However, only 17 percent of those requesting Lowell were accepted for the 2017 school year.

Abraham Lincoln High was the second most requested high school, with 19 percent listing it as a first choice, followed by Balboa, 11 percent, George Washington and Galileo, each with nine percent. Along with Raoul Wallenberg, which isn’t as widely requested, and Gateway, a charter school not involved in the lottery process, all posted fairly similar test scores, ranging from 71 to 75 percent passing standards in English, 52 to 62 percent in math. Only Balboa trailed, at 67 percent and 48 percent respectively, though these scores reflected a six percent improvement in both subjects from 2016.

When it came to actual 2017 assignments, however, 53 percent of applicants were directed to Lowell, Lincoln, Washington or Burton high. Seventeen percent of candidates didn’t get any of their choices.  Most of these students were assigned to Phillip and Sala Burton, which had test scores that trailed by close to 30 percent from the others. The remaining students were consigned to Thurgood Marshall or John O’Connell.

While O’Connell posted similar results to Burton in English, with 43 percent passing the standard, only 12 percent of its students met or exceeded math standards. At Marshall, only one-fifth of students on both tests reached the passing level. These weren’t San Francisco’s worst performing high schools, however. Those, unsurprisingly, were continuation schools for students deemed at risk of not graduating, including Downtown High School on Vermont Street and Ida B. Wells.

There isn’t a direct correlation between test scores and school requests when it comes to the District’s 70 elementary schools, except for the worst performing. Grattan, Alvarado, Rooftop and Claire Lilienthal followed Clarendon as the most requested first choices, with West Portal being the second most popular alternate choice. However, the four elementary schools scoring highest on standardized tests were Chinese Immersion School at De Avila, Lawton Alternative, George Peabody and Sunset, all seeing more than 80 percent of their tested students achieving passing grades in English and math.

Overall, San Francisco’s elementary school students scored higher on tests than their older peers. Discarding merit-based Lowell and Asawa, the top eight schools on the English exam, and top dozen in math, were all elementary institutions. Noteworthy is Ulloa, which had the highest number of economically disadvantaged students performing well, with more than half exceeding, and 86 percent overall at least meeting, math standards.

At the lower end, with the fewest meeting or exceeding standards, were Bret Harte, 7.9 percent, Dr. Charles R. Drew, 12.1 percent, and Cesar Chavez, 12.3 percent, in English; and El Dorado, 8.7 percent, Drew, 8.9 percent, and George Washington Carver, 10.2 percent, in math.

More than half of 2017 first choice requests were spread among 17 schools; less than 10 percent of requests listed 23 other schools as a first choice.

The same discrepancy can be found in the City’s middle schools. Four schools made up 53 percent of first choices for applicants last year:  Giannini, Herbert Hoover, Presidio and Aptos. While four others – Willie Brown Jr., Visitation Valley, Martin Luther King and James Lick – received only six percent of first choice requests.

Giannini had the highest test scores – 75.9 percent in English; 73.9 percent in math – among middle schools, with Presidio second; 71.5 percent and 69.7 percent. The next best was Theodore Roosevelt, 70.3 percent, 62.6 percent.  Westborough and Hoover were close behind, with more than 60 percent making the grade on both tests. Two charter schools, both kindergarten through eighth grade, also did respectable in testing, with Mission Prep coming in at 71.7 percent and 65.5 percent respectively, and Creative Arts at 71.5 percent and 55.2 percent.

Among the four least requested middle schools, Martin Luther King performed the best on tests, at 40.7 percent and 33.7 percent, followed by Lick – 26 percent, 18.5 percent – Visitation Valley – 21.6 percent, 11.3 percent – and Brown, 20.9 percent, 10.4 percent.

Overall, San Francisco schools exceeded state averages in achieving passing grades in English – 54.6 percent to 48.6 percent – and math, 51.9 percent to 37.6 percent. The numbers held up amongst English learners and economically disadvantaged students as well, with a glaring exception. When it comes to African-Americans and Hispanics, the City scores lower than state averages, particularly among the disadvantaged. The lowest scoring schools are likely a drag on those numbers. Chavez is just 2.6 percent White, Harte 1.7 percent, Carver 1.4 percent, El Dorado 1.3 percent, Marshall one percent and Visitation Valley and Drew 0.5 percent.

A recent study by Innovative Public Schools, a nonprofit that pushes for more charter schools, which is at odds with SFUSD’s goals, claimed African-American and Hispanic students were underperforming at stronger schools as well. It’s an area that new Superintendent Vincent Matthews has cited as one of his main focuses for improvement.

San Francisco girls are besting boys on English tests, with 60.2 percent compared with 49.4 percent making the passing mark, but are near identical in math, with girls slightly edging boys, 51.7 percent to 50.2 percent.

As far as transitional kindergarten requests go, Noriega, Argonne and Drew made up more than half the first-choice requests last year, but roughly half the students were assigned to Drew, Tule Elke Park and Harte. Pre-kindergarten requires tuition or subsidized care to attend.

When it comes to Potrero Hill, 64 percent of students from the 94107 zipcode received their first choice of schools last year; 12 percent didn’t receive any of their preferences or failed to request a choice.

SFUSD data doesn’t distinguish between those who are assigned to schools solely by lottery as compared with those assigned as a result of tiebreakers. In the lottery’s first round preference is given if a sibling already attends the school and if the student resides in a City area with low test scores or within the same zip code as the school.