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EXCLUSIVE: For the first time, parents can now compare student achievement at all LAUSD magnets

Sarah Favot | November 27, 2017



Vintage Magnet students, from left, Krystelle Arcinas, Marissa Soto, Nadia Wilson, and Alex Lopez with Principal Nancy Mourao and the National Blue Ribbon plaque awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. (Courtesy: LA Unified)

For the first time, parents can now compare standardized test results at all of LA Unified’s highly sought-after magnet programs.

Because many magnets are a “school within a school” — called magnet centers — students’ academic achievement is not reported by the state separately from the traditional school campus where the magnet centers are located. Nor has LA Unified published these scores.

But new district data released to LA School Report show state test scores at all 226 magnets — both the magnet centers and the standalone schools.

Students overall at LA Unified’s magnet programs have high academic achievement. But just because a school has the word “magnet” in its name does not mean its students always achieve high levels of academic success. This data will help parents research which magnet programs are exceeding standards and which aren’t. The data also show parents which magnet programs are successful at serving disadvantaged students. The data show the percentage low-income, English learners, and foster youth at each magnet center and school.

Here are the links to the district’s data:

  • COMPLETE DATA. Here is the complete data set from the district including magnets, traditional schools, and charters. The data show 2016 and 2017 results, ranked by 2017 English proficiency scores.
  • ENGLISH SCORES. Here is the data set for English scores at magnets, charters, and traditional schools ordered to show schools with the highest 2017 English scores first.
  • MATH SCORES. Here is the data set for math scores at magnets, charters, and traditional schools ordered to show schools with the highest 2017 math scores first.

(The data show test scores at all elementary, middle, and high schools for two years. A tab at the bottom of the spreadsheet labeled “KEY” will help you understand the codes used in the data. Affiliated charter schools are labeled as traditional schools. Here is a list of magnet programs that are gifted or high-ability with academic admission requirements; you can also see these by searching the spreadsheets for “HG, G/HG, G/HA, GHA, G/HG/HA, H/G”)

COMPARING TYPES OF SCHOOLS

This year there are 76,000 students enrolled in 177 magnet centers and 49 magnet schools. Those students make up 12 percent of LA Unified’s total enrollment of 620,000 students. The data provided by the district also include traditional schools and independent charter schools.

The full data set is more than just comparing whether magnets or charter schools are “better.” It gives parents the tools to evaluate individual programs using academic and demographic data to decide what might be best fit for their child.

Former Superintendent Ramon Cortines was the first to ask the district’s data and accountability staff to conduct an analysis comparing the city’s magnets and charter schools. That analysis, of the first year of the new state test results in 2015, showed that students at magnets outperformed students at independent charter schools, although the demographics of magnets and charters do not match up evenly, and some magnet schools are for highly gifted students. To qualify for a gifted program, students must show an ability or strong potential to work two years above their grade level.

Kindergartners perform “Celebrate” at Vintage Magnet, which is one of two LA Unified schools to earn a National Blue Ribbon award this year. (Courtesy: LA Unified)

This fall, LA School Report asked for the district’s analysis of the 2017 test scores, and the district for the first time released the spreadsheet behind its analysis that showed students at magnets continued to outperform their peers at charters overall.

An LA School Report analysis of that data found that even after removing highly gifted magnets, students at magnets still outperformed charter schools.

• Read more: Exclusive: Even after taking out gifted magnets, LAUSD magnets outperform charter schools on state standardized tests

But many agree that comparing magnets to charters is not apples to apples because charters serve a more high-needs population.

According to the district analysis of last school year’s test scores, 83 percent of students at charter schools are economically disadvantaged and 19 percent are English learners.

Comparatively, 73 percent of students who attend the district’s magnet schools are economically disadvantaged and 5 percent are English learners.

LA Unified isn’t required to publicly report the data on their individual magnet programs and oftentimes there is a resistance by districts in general to release more information than required. But in response to questions by LA School Report about why the district hasn’t released the data, Kevon Tucker-Seeley, LA Unified’s director of the Research and Reporting Branch of the Office of Data and Accountability, said it is something the district will consider.

“Moving forward, we can certainly consider a different approach for reporting results,” he said in an email. “Regardless, we should continue making strides toward making data more accessible to parents through our new unified enrollment system and through the parent portal.”

LA School Report is releasing the complete data set to help parents make the critical decision of where they will send their child to school as they are making decisions for the next school year. The deadline to apply to magnets through the unified enrollment system passed earlier this month. Families are tentatively set to receive selection letters around March 14. The deadline for families to decide which program they will choose is tentatively set for April 7.

WHY COMPARABLE DATA AREN’T EASILY AVAILABLE

The state standardized test scores that are posted in an easily digestible format on the state’s website don’t break out magnets unless magnets are a standalone school, such as Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies on the Westside or Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School in Highland Park.

Most magnets are a school within a school, and so when the state standardized test scores are posted, the results of all the students on the campus, including any magnets and the traditional school, are combined.

Charter schools, which are independently run, are easier to compare because the standardized test scores are posted for each individual school on the state’s website. LA Unified has 224 charter schools, more than any other city in the nation. Charters account for 18 percent of the total student enrollment in public schools at about 110,000 students.

MAGNETS: THE ANSWER TO LAUSD’S ENROLLMENT PROBLEM?

The district has turned to magnets as its enrollment has steadily declined since its peak of 750,000 in 2002-03. The enrollment slide is attributed to families that have left the city for the suburbs due to LA’s skyrocketing home prices, the growth of charter schools, and a birth rate countywide that has slowed down. Many magnets have waitlists — last year the district reported that 25,000 students were waitlisted for magnets. (Another sought-after program the district will expand are dual-language programs.)

But not all magnets are successful.

Alan Warhaftig, who retired last year after more than a decade as the magnet program co-coordinator at Fairfax High School, believes that the district’s goal of rapid expansion of magnets could dilute the success of the programs.

He said principals’ number 1, 2, and 3 top priorities are increasing enrollment.

“The solution that they look at is ‘I want a magnet’, they have no idea what’s involved with a successful magnet,” he said. If managing a second magnet program is added to the workload of a magnet coordinator, it cuts that person’s time in half, Warhaftig said.

(Warhaftig has released his own data analysis of high schools, which includes magnets, charters, and traditional schools both in LA Unified and in other nearby school districts.)

Ben Feinberg, who teaches eighth-grade math at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park, disagrees that an expansion of magnets will dilute their quality. Burbank has a Math-Science-Technology Magnet and a Police Academy Magnet.

“Having a strong magnet coordinator and strong teachers are important. But, as a magnet teacher and a former LAUSD magnet student, I would argue that the deepest strength of the magnet program comes from the integration experience itself,” he said. “Especially in a segregated city like Los Angeles, bringing students from different backgrounds and communities together creates a more powerful learning environment.”

(Feinberg also blogs about LA Unified’s accountability data at schooldatanerd.com.)

Magnets were created in the 1970s to desegregate schools. They are called magnets because they are open to anyone in the district, but parents must apply to them and acceptance is based on a points system. Points are given if a student’s neighborhood school is overcrowded, if a student’s sibling attends the school, if the student has been wait-listed at another magnet, and a student’s race is also considered because of the desegregation mission of magnet schools. The district generally offers free busing to elementary students who live more than two miles from their magnet school and to high school students who live more than five miles from their school. Busing is not always guaranteed.

DEMAND FOR DATA

Education advocates in Los Angeles say they have longed to see this data.

Parent advocates say the data is needed to help parents choose the best options for their children, and others say data should be made public to identify which magnets are successful and which should be replicated or expanded so more children have access to a high-performing option.

The mission of Great Public Schools Now, led by Executive Director Myrna Castrejón, is to replicate successful schools no matter their model — charter, magnet, pilot, or traditional schools. At its launch last year, GPSN calculated that 160,000 students attend low-performing schools in 10 low-income neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Earlier this year the nonprofit organization gave replication grants to King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science and a pilot school so that these successful LA Unified programs can expand to serve more students.

In an interview, Castrejón said GPSN relied on schools that applied for the grants to self-report their test scores because GPSN did not have access to this data for magnet centers located on a traditional school campus because the state combines the students’ scores.

“The academic record is simply much more easily verifiable (at charters),” Castrejón said. “That’s a structural problem with how data is reported to the state.”

Many education leaders emphasize test scores should not be the sole way to evaluate a school as was previously done under the state’s Academic Performance Index, or API. The state Board of Education has created a dashboard to evaluate schools on things like suspension rates and chronic absenteeism, in addition to test scores. Some advocates maintain that the dashboard doesn’t go far enough in helping parents evaluate schools because it doesn’t include a summative rating.

The district’s unified enrollment system that parents used for the first time this year to apply to magnets and other district options did not contain information about student academics, but it did contain other information about the schools like what after-school activities are offered, if Advanced Placement classes are available, and notable alumni.

And the new system shows parents how many students applied to each program last year and how many seats are available for the next school year.

Castrejón said when she moved to Los Angeles last year from Sacramento as she took the helm of GPSN and was looking for a school for her sixth-grade son, the first thing she looked at was test results. The next step was visiting the school to see student learning in action and experience the school’s environment.

“It’s all about finding the right match and it’s about the passion,” Castrejón said. Her son has a love of music.

Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, who is on the district’s Unified Enrollment Taskforce, said he advocated for the district to include academic data as part of the new application system.

“Parents are being asked to make one of the most import decisions in their kids’ lives,” Litt said. “We need to do a better job of giving them information.”

Parent Revolution has dispatched its staff to help parents navigate the district’s choice programs. They have found that many families learn about the best schools by word-of-mouth.

“I think there is a broad hesitancy in LAUSD at all levels to share data with families that helps them compare their school options,” Litt said.

But LA Unified is not alone, as other districts typically don’t release this data either.

“It’s a rare thing for a district to proffer information that they’re not required to report in general. It’s the nature of bureaucracy,” Castrejón said.

“This kind of transparency is really ultimately what parents need and demand to make sure that we have a good sense for how far we have to go in improving educational equity.”

But the district has not closed the door to including the information in the future.

Nick Melvoin, who was elected to the school board this spring and serves as its vice president, said in an interview he wants the state test score data to be part of the district’s unified enrollment system, “so that it’s a really meaningful tool for parents.”

He said he wants the test score data and other accountability data about schools included as soon as possible so that parents have in one central place the information the district has available about every school.

Melvoin said he understands why the district is rolling out the unified enrollment system in phases considering the problems it has faced in the past when massive new tools have been introduced, such as the student tracking system MiSiS. He said the district needs to make more information available to parents quickly.

“We’re trying to do things very urgently since parents are choosing schools as we speak,” Melvoin said.

When it comes to the district’s planned expansion of magnets, Melvoin wants to ensure the district evaluates the success of the programs.

“What I worry about in all areas of public policy is when fads can become tempting to replicate. Charters, magnets, STEM, STEAM. None of those words independently improve outcomes for kids,” he said.

“I’m worried that we latch onto the data that shows magnets are high-performing and we want to replicate them without understanding what makes the school high-performing.”

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