An illustration from A Parent's Guide to San Diego Schools
Across San Diego County, most schools will be going back to full-time, in-person learning. But students have more options than ever, including online education, similar to what happened during the pandemic, and parent-driven education known as independent study. / Illustration by Bee Johnson

Ever since becoming an education reporter, I have wrestled with a great and confounding question. And I still don’t have an answer.

How do you judge the quality of a school?

Each year, we lean into that question in our Parent’s Guide to San Diego Schools – which is en route to preschools and libraries across the county and was just published on our website. (You can look for a hard copy at San Diego libraries and with these partner organizations.)

Understanding what makes a quality school is at the heart of our mission in publishing the guide. We haven’t totally wrapped our minds around the answer and I think that’s a good thing. It forces the guide to evolve each year.

The Parent’s Guide has all the information you might expect about a school: test scores, enrollment numbers, rates of chronic absenteeism and other standard measures. But for the past two years, we’ve added our own spin to education data with help from the Center for Research and Evaluation at UC San Diego Extension.

Last year, we started measuring the average years of teaching experience for the teaching corps at each school. (It’s in this year’s guide too.) And this year, we created a metric that measures English and math performance, while cutting through raw test scores.

Critics of standardized testing frequently point out that test scores measure a school’s poverty level better than they measure learning. And there’s plenty of research to back up that claim. So with that in mind, we tried to control for each school’s poverty level.

We tallied up the poverty level and test scores for the majority of schools in the county. That gave us a prediction of where each school should score, based on its poverty level. We then measured by how much that school outperformed or underperformed its expectations. (I wrote an even more detailed description of the analysis several weeks ago.)

Take Helix High, in Grossmont Union High School District, for example. At Helix, roughly 59 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. That means 59 percent of students live near the federal poverty line. Our analysis showed that a school with a poverty level of 59 percent should score 12 points below proficiency in its combined English and math score.

Instead, Helix students had a combined score of 63 points above proficiency. That means Helix scored 75 points above expectations – and thus it scored a 75 on our income vs. poverty metric. Only one school in the county did better.

Plenty of other schools scored well below expectations.

The weight society assigns to test scores has fluctuated greatly over the past 20 years. In the early 2000’s, during the No Child Left Behind era, many people became obsessed with test scores as the one true and good measure of a school. Since then, talking about test scores has fallen from favor – even though students are still required to take standardized tests every year.

Cindy Marten, the current deputy secretary of the US Department of Education and until recently superintendent of San Diego Unified, had a good take on the value of test scores back in 2013 when she was interviewed by Scott Lewis.

A good school is so much more than a test score, she said. It’s a warm environment, where children learn to be engaged, contributing members of society. Good test scores are a “byproduct” of good schools, she said.

I don’t know when or if test scores will come back into the conversation about quality in schools. But most education experts I’ve talked to agree: a metric that controls for poverty tells you much more about a school than raw test scores. I hope San Diego parents find ours meaningful as they use the guide.

Our income vs. test score metric is only one among many. If a large portion of students are frequently absent from school, that’s probably not a good sign – or vice versa. The Parent’s Guide tracks chronic absenteeism. It also lets you know whether a school has special programs like after-school care, the much-lauded International Baccalaureate program or dual language immersion.

Trying to judge school quality through data alone will always be an imperfect endeavor. The only universal rule I’ve learned about good schools is that you know them when you see them.

Other Cool Parent’s Guide Stuff

The Parents’ Guide isn’t just a telephone book full of data. We made it available in English and Spanish. And we filled it with articles that explain the changes wrought on education by the pandemic:

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Learning Curve, send them to 

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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