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A Caution about Comparisons

Last updated November 15, 2012

    California Districts and Schools are Similar . . . and Different

    Although they cover basic facts, the information on the School and District Comparison reports cannot fully reveal the enormous variety in the composition and circumstances of each school and district in the state. For example, a small high school district in a sparsely populated area is hardly comparable to one within the heart of Los Angeles County, even though their size, student demographics and funding may look the same. Likewise, a suburban charter school in the central valley could in fact be quite different from one in the populous San Francisco Bay Area.

    When comparing schools or districts, it is crucial to consider not only a variety of factors, but also the circumstances behind them that help to explain differences among districts or schools that otherwise seem similar. These can include:

    The demographic and geographic characteristics that are beyond the control of a school or district

    The district's resources, including how much support it receives for special purposes or from community contributions

    The decisions, primarily by the school board, about how resources are used, including the ability to attract a strong teaching force or to offer smaller classes.

    Per-Pupil Revenue Figures

    Ed-Data per-pupil revenue figures are based on General Fund revenues only, because such figures are the most appropriate to use for comparing the funds available to districts regardless of their size or configuration. Additional revenue information for individual districts is available on the All Funds tab. However, Ed-Data does not provide a per-pupil calculation for revenues outside the General Fund because they vary based on unique district circumstances. Given such variations, comparisons on a per-pupil basis would be meaningless at best and could be extremely misleading.

    Additional Data 

    Data in the district-level and school-level reports on this site, including financial statements for districts, can give you answers to additional questions that are relevant to comparisons, such as:

    How much of the district's revenue is from categorical aid for special students or programs?

    Did the district opt not to participate in a voluntary program, such as K-3 class size reduction?

    Has the district succeeded — or failed — in a parcel tax or general obligation bond election?

    What percentage of the district budget is spent on classified or administrative personnel?

    Does a single characteristic stand out in each school, such as many (or few) students who need to learn English?

    Is a school a charter or year-round?

    Measuring Student Performance

    All of these characteristics and circumstances affect the final result — how well students learn. Comparing and evaluating student performance can be the most challenging and potentially misleading part of making comparisons.

    For example, test scores are popularly taken as a primary measure of student or school success. That approach is narrow, since educators agree that multiple indicators, not all neatly quantifiable, are the best evidence of performance.

    Further, several important factors affect test scores:

    Parental education level has a strong effect on test scores, with better educated parents usually producing higher scoring students.

    A student's family income also has an impact. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress (which reports only statewide scores), researchers have found that the percent of children in poverty affects the results. The lowest scoring states have nearly three times the number of students in poverty as the highest ranked states. California has a high proportion of test takers from lower income families.

    SAT scores tend to change according to the percent of students taking the tests, with scores tending to decline as the number of test-takers increases.

    Go to the California Department of Education's Dataquest site (http://dq.cde.ca.gov/Dataquest) for complete information about test scores and Academic Performance Indexes.

    Answering Other Questions

    Some information is available directly from a district or school. You can learn more by reading a district's budget or its School Accountability Report Cards or, especially, by talking with district personnel or visiting a school. Some questions could be:

    Do geographical factors affect the budget or the educational program?

    What are the school sizes/acreage?

    How many students are served by categorical programs?

    What is the status of the facilities (age of buildings, square footage, deferred maintenance)?

    What staff development is available for teachers or other employees?

    What is the local revenue-raising capacity? For example, does a district wide foundation seek in-kind or direct financial contributions? Is the district successful in winning grants from local businesses or private foundations? Does it have revenue from a successful parcel tax or bond election?

    If the district provides home-to-school transportation, what is the net cost (encroachment) to the General Fund?

    Finally, an important fact to remember is that neighboring schools or even districts may have a similar or familiar "feel." But the basic characteristics can be different in significant ways — to say nothing of the special circumstances and the decisions that result in dissimilar outcomes. A simplistic comparison limited to, for example, revenues per student, may be tempting. However, it is neither meaningful nor fair because other characteristics, such as the number of English learners or the socioeconomic makeup, may have a strong impact on the total picture.

    All contents copyright © 2015, Education Data Partnership. All rights reserved.

    Ed-Data is a partnership of the California Department of Education, EdSource and the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) designed to offer educators, policy makers, the legislature, parents, and the public quick access to timely and comprehensive data about K-12 education in California.