Opinion | Scott Phelps: PUSD Test Scores and Graduates: Dispelling the Myths

Published : Monday, September 3, 2018 | 4:48 PM

When speaking with parents whose children attend the unusually large number of private schools in our area, one sometimes hears criticisms of PUSD school programs. A couple such criticisms are about PUSD test scores and which colleges PUSD graduates attend.

With regard to test scores, of course private schools have nowhere near the accountability requirements such as the state test scores taken by public school students and reported and discussed annually in the media. So when I receive such criticism, I ask about the test scores of the private school their children attend. I usually get no answer, because although independent school organizations have tests, they don’t get the attention or the priority/discussion that public school testing does and are different tests anyway. For those who are really interested in comparing apples to apples, I tell them to ask their school about its NAEP scores. Every four years, the nation does administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and a sample of traditional public, charter and private schools take it. Studies have shown that there are the same achievement gaps in private schools as one hears about in public schools, as measured by NAEP scores. When scores are adjusted for various student characteristics, the average student scores are very similar. Doesn’t matter what kind of school the students attend. Here is a summary from one such study, a comparison between public and private school NAEP scores: (https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/studies/2006461.pdf)

“In grades 4 and 8 for both reading and mathematics, students in private schools achieved at higher levels than students in public schools. The average difference in school means ranged from almost 8 points for grade 4 mathematics to about 18 points for grade 8 reading. The average differences were all statistically significant. Adjusting the comparisons for student characteristics resulted in reductions in all four average differences of approximately 11 to 14 points. Based on adjusted school means, the average for public schools was significantly higher than the average for private schools for grade 4 mathematics, while the average for private schools was significantly higher than the average for public schools for grade 8 reading. The average differences in adjusted school mean for both grade 4 reading and grade 8 mathematics were not significantly different from zero.”

Here is the summary from a comparison of public non-charter and charter NAEP scores: (https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2006460.aspx)

“After adjusting for student characteristics, charter school mean scores in reading and mathematics were lower, on average, than those for public non-charter schools. The size of these differences was smaller in reading than in mathematics.”

Besides this lack of easily available comparative data with private schools, one oversimplification is usually the first thing you hear: PUSD’s test scores are not as high as those in the surrounding districts. Well PUSD has a large range of demographically different schools—although all of PUSD’s schools have higher percentages of lower income families than any school in the surrounding districts. It is really not possible to credibly compare PUSD’s diverse set of schools and corresponding range of individual schools’ test scores with those of a district whose schools have all about the same and much higher socioeconomic status. So even saying “PUSD’s test scores” as if they are something you can compare with those of other districts doesn’t make sense. Even when one attempts to compare PUSD with a district that is high-poverty, high-minority like PUSD, often the specific demographics of the communities are very different, as the politics and histories of communities can be quite different. The state board of education has thankfully resisted the calls of folks who like to compare districts and schools with one another, and eliminated the use of one number (the old API) to describe a district or school in the new state dashboard accountability system.

This brings us to the second often-heard criticism of PUSD, that its graduates don’t attend the best colleges or the level of colleges that private school graduates attend. This is just false. Detailed information on PUSD’s Classes of 2017 and 2018, including for each of PUSD’s individual high schools, can be found at


Readers can see that for example members of the Class of 2018 were accepted to public and private colleges and universities across the country and abroad, including Brown University, Caltech, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, Julliard, MIT, Occidental College, Princeton University, UCLA and UC Berkeley, USC, Stanford, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and the American University of Paris. Graduates will attend college, and enter apprenticeships and the armed forces. The Class of 2018 won more than $16.9 million in scholarships and grants to help them attend these colleges.

Among the Class of 2018 are National Merit Scholars, International Baccalaureate Diploma and Certificate candidates, National Honor Society members, California Scholarship Federation Seal Bearers, Golden State Seal Merit Diplomas, athletes, and more. In addition, 102 graduates earned California’s Seal of Biliteracy, which recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English.

As can be seen at the link, the results for the Class of 2017 are similar. PUSD graduates go to the nation’s top colleges. Period.

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