Neena Trummell, 4, clings to her father, Mike, as he tours Wilbur Avenue… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Five families from across the San Fernando Valley set up camp for three nights by the front door of Wilbur Avenue Elementary School in 2009, intent on getting a spot for their children in one of the best-regarded schools in Los Angeles. Others hired someone to hold their place in line.
This spring, the school in affluent Tarzana began using a lottery for applicants from outside the neighborhood. Within hours, more than a dozen children were on the list.
What these determined families could not have known is that Wilbur's record was among the worst in Los Angeles for boosting student performance in math and English.
On average, the children started out as high achievers but year after year lost ground on the state's standardized tests, according to a Times analysis of scores from the 2002-03 through 2008-09 school years. Nearly 90% of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District saw more academic progress.
Several other respected elementary schools, including Topeka Drive in Northridge and Third Street in Hancock Park, also had poor results.
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At the same time, some of the biggest gains came on campuses in low-income areas, schools often considered failing by state and federal standards.
The school whose students improved most? Maywood Elementary southeast of downtown Los Angeles, where virtually every student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches and almost half are still learning English.
Parents — and even principals — don't know this because the district doesn't measure progress in this way, although it could.
Schools such as Wilbur shine under the current measure of academic success — the all-important Academic Performance Index — based on students' achievement level on standardized tests. But, as state data show, such measures largely reflect students' advantages outside school, not what the school itself is contributing to their learning.
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The API obscures the fact that students at Wilbur had the potential for further growth that went unrealized. Instead, they tended to slip every year while those at other esteemed schools in well-off neighborhoods made great strides. It also obscures the gains in schools in impoverished areas.
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A similar story is playing out across the country.
"We're measuring who is in schools rather than how effective the schools are," said Helen Ladd, a professor and testing expert at Duke University.
The Times used an approach — known as "value-added" — that, while also based on standardized tests, looks at how much students improve year to year.
The analysis was based on test scores in Grade 2 through 5 at 450 of Los Angeles' approximately 500 elementary schools. It substantially changes the picture of which schools are succeeding and which are not.
The approach generally doesn't penalize schools for things beyond their control — students' poverty, English-language ability, previous achievement or other factors commonly used to explain schools' success or failure. That's because each student's progress is measured against his or her own past performance, not that of other children.
Value-added has many critics who consider it unreliable and a narrow gauge of performance. It looks, in this instance, only at math and English scores, and it ignores many other factors that parents consider when choosing a school. Most of the controversy over value-added, however, has centered on whether it should be used to assess individual teachers, not schools.
Last Sunday, The Times published findings from a value-added analysis of more than 6,000 teachers in L.A. Unified, which noted that it matters much more which teacher a child gets than which school he or she attends. But parents don't usually pick a school for a single teacher; this analysis points to schools where teachers overall tend to be more successful at raising scores year after year.