Thursday, July 31, 2008 | If San Diego Unified were graded on its own school report cards, it would be docked points for tardiness.

Report cards that detail test scores, expulsion rates, teacher salaries and a slew of other data on San Diego Unified schools were finished after the state deadline this summer, violating California law. But the lapse is unlikely to be noticed by parents.

Few know that the reports exist. Much of the information they contain is available earlier elsewhere. And the reports are often so outdated that parents don’t use them for their intended purpose: to decide which schools their kids should attend.

“What makes me angry is parents don’t even know,” said Diane Haney, president of the San Diego County Title 1 Parents Association. She worries that parents in the southern, lower-income stretches of the school district may choose to send their children to schools in wealthier northern areas based on stereotypes instead of statistics.

“They just put their child on that yellow bus, and bus them to another failing school,” Haney said. “These kids are trapped in those schools. And the parents don’t have a clue.”

All California school districts must prepare annual School Accountability Report Cards under Proposition 98, which passed in 1988. The reports are meant to empower parents to compare schools and choose the best fit for their child. In San Diego Unified, parents can apply to transfer kids into magnet schools focused on unique themes, to remove them from underperforming schools, or shuttle them elsewhere through an integration program.

Using the report cards, a parent can review test scores, class sizes, and attendance rates at a glance, and choose which school they prefer. If they worry about school discipline and safety, they might compare expulsion rates and safety plans; if they want experienced teachers, they could see how much the schools spend on teacher salaries, which correspond roughly to seniority. Others might read the mission statements to see if the schools’ principles match their own.

But two decades later, the evaluations have been bloated by a smattering of state and federal laws that ask schools to load the reports with more and more data. The federal No Child Left Behind Law demands that schools report whether test scores are meeting its changing standards; a landmark California case requires schools to report textbook shortages, teachers working outside their expertise, and whether buildings are in disrepair. School districts must issue the reports during the school year, but the increased demands have sometimes delayed the reports.

Those delays can make the report cards obsolete, said Carmen Russian, who directs the San Diego office of the Parent Institute for Quality Education. Test scores already lag: State exams taken in March and April aren’t graded and publicized until at least August of the same year.

San Diego Unified is finishing its report cards in late July, just weeks before California releases new, updated scores, and months after parents apply to transfer their children to different schools.

Other districts in San Diego County released their report cards slightly earlier. Chula Vista Elementary School District published its reports in June; Sweetwater Union High School District finished them in May.

“As soon as the information is printed, it’s outdated,” said Cindy McIntyre, president of the San Diego Unified Council of Parent Teacher Associations, who said she hasn’t looked at a school accountability report card in years. “If I’m looking for current information, I just call the school. Or I go on the California education website.”

Reflecting those concerns, California legislators pushed the deadline for next year’s report card up to Feb. 1. But there is little enforcement of the existing deadline. A California Department of Education official warned San Diego Unified that it violated the state deadline, but said there was no punishment running afoul of the law.

However, school districts may risk being sued by Public Advocates, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco that does statewide yearly audits of the report cards. Last year, Public Advocates pinpointed problems at 18 school districts, including Chula Vista Elementary and Sweetwater Union High School District, sued Oakland Unified, and warned Chula Vista that it could face a lawsuit if it didn’t improve its reporting.

Public Advocates attorney Guillermo Mayer said the report cards can be a powerful tool to demand improvement at public schools, assembling crucial information in a single document. In the central California town of Coalinga, parents who suspected problems at their schools paged through school report cards to learn how often teachers were assigned outside their expertise, he said.

The data were a springboard for their own investigations of classrooms, bathrooms and drinking fountains.

“Pipes were so old they discolored the water,” Mayer said. “We found through a lab test that there were dangerous chemicals. But it began with the School Accountability Report Card.”

Still, many parents are unaware of the report cards. Principals are supposed to fold a shortened version of the reports, which can run as long as 17 pages in their longer form, into packets that students take home when school begins. Yet Russian estimated that 70 percent of the people who attend Parent Institute for Quality Education trainings have never heard of the report cards. Last year, a statewide survey found that less than 7 percent of California parents had seen the reports online.

Even Charles Allen, the San Diego Unified staffer who prepares the reports, said that speaking as a parent, he has never gotten one from the public elementary and middle schools his kids attend.

“Maybe my wife sticks them in a drawer,” he said.

And when parents do receive the report cards, their language can be baffling. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that Rotary Club members, who tend to be well-educated, had trouble understanding the report cards. Computers analyzed the reports as less readable than guidelines for filing the alternative minimum tax.

“We love the intent of the school accountability report cards,” said Anthony Millican, spokesman for Chula Vista Elementary School District, which improved its report cards this year after Public Advocates complained. “But the public probably has very little interest in reading 14 pages of text and tabs of data that are a couple years old. … Those who are interested are Realtors and attorneys.”

Allen said that decoding jargon from the education bureaucracy is a big part of his job. He spends hours sifting through school descriptions written by principals or by employees who were handed the task, and is gathering input from parents on how to make the reports more useful. A recent law trimmed the requirements somewhat, freeing schools from reporting how teachers are evaluated and whether qualified substitute teachers are available.

But writing the report cards is still a daunting task, complicated by the Byzantine systems that California uses to track school data. The California Department of Education provides a template for the report cards and feeds roughly 80 percent of the data into the reports, said Carlos Rivera, a consultant in its policy and evaluation division. Yet school districts say the remaining chunk of data can be difficult to assemble, and even the data that California collects can be incomplete.

San Diego Unified must pester principals to write about school safety and parent involvement and edit their answers for consistency. Textbook shortage information arrived in a spiral-bound notebook that Allen had to retype by hand. And the number of teachers working outside of their expertise is calculated from 128 different credential categories in the district’s human resources department.

Overwhelmed, some school districts pay to outsource the task; others struggle to meet the deadline without outside help. San Diego Unified created its own software to funnel information from far-flung departments into a single report card. But the report cards still lagged, left uncompleted until late July.

“I’m blown away by how complex it is,” said Karen Bachofer, who oversees the San Diego Unified department that assembles the report cards.

But “it levels the playing field, and we owe it to our customers,” she said. “… It’s a useful tool — in spite of the hours it takes to do it.”

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