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A closer look reveals the truth about PUSD school test scores

Robert Niles
Published: March 6, 2011 at 8:06 PM (MST)
[This post has been edited to add information from the comments.] I'm sure you've heard the ongoing complains that the Pasadena Unified School District is "troubled" or "underperforming." Despite the fact that PUSD's state test scores have risen for the past several years, and are rising faster than the state average, critics point out that PUSD's average California API score, 758, still lags the state average of 767.

Let's take a look at what's really happening in the PUSD. Here are the district's latest average state test scores, broken down by racial, ethnic and economic group:

2010 API Growth Report
Student CategoryPUSD AverageState Average
Hispanic or Latino736715
African American712685
Socioeconomically Disadvantaged*724712

(*These are students on the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program)

That's right, PUSD students outscore the state average in each of these racial, ethnic and economic groups. So how is it that PUSD's average is lower than the state average?

It's because the mix of white, Latino, black and poor students in PUSD isn't the same as for the rest of the state. PUSD is disproportionally Latino, black and poor compared with school districts across the state, and those students on average score significantly below the state average. (I'll get to some of the reasons for that in a moment.) More than 70 percent of PUSD students are on the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, compared with 10 percent in South Pasadena, 2.5 percent in San Marino and just one percent in La Canada. (According to state API demographic reports, San Marino and La Canada each have fewer total students in the free and reduced-priced lunch program than Pasadena's percentage of students in the program.)

Allow me to illustrate Pasadena's child poverty problem in another way. According the demographic data from the California 2010 Growth API reports, for students in grades 2-12:

La Canada has 3,042 non-poor (i.e. not in the free lunch program) students in its district.

San Marino has 2,445 non-poor students in its district.

South Pasadena has 2,885 non-poor students in its district.

Pasadena Unified has 3,631 non-poor students in its district.

These districts seems pretty similar, huh? Well, there is a difference:

La Canada has 35 economically disadvantaged students along with its 3,042 non-poor students.

San Marino has 64 economically disadvantaged students along with its 2,445 non-poor students.

South Pasadena has 327 economically disadvantaged students along with its 2,885 non-poor students.

PUSD has 10,013 economically disadvantaged students along with its 3,631 non-poor students.

So even though PUSD's economically disadvantaged students are, on average, outperforming their fellow students across the state, the higher percentage of those students in PUSD means that district's average remains slightly below the state average.

The truth is that PUSD is doing a better job than most districts in the state in closing the achievement gap. (And its white and non-poor students continue to score far above state averages, as well.)

Should our Latino, black and poor students be scoring higher than they are? Absolutely. But PUSD deserves credit for bringing these students' test scores above their corresponding state averages. Unfortunately, classroom efforts only can go so far.

In study after study across the country, researchers have found that test scores correlate strongly with parent income and education level. It makes sense. What happens to kids whose parents aren't home after school because they are working two jobs to earn enough money to pay the rent? What happens to kids whose parents didn't take biology, algebra or history because they were denied education themselves, and therefore can't help their children with their homework? What happens to kids whose parents can't afford to send them to school with a good breakfast or even a full night's sleep in their own, warm bed?

They suffer academically, despite the best efforts of teachers between 8am and 3pm, 180-some days a year. A school - and its community - must make an extra effort to help provide these children the academic, social and nutritional support that they aren't getting at home in order to raise their performance at school. And that extra support costs money.

Our neighboring districts have parcel taxes that help them provide extra money to support classroom instruction and student assistance. Despite winning 54 percent of the vote last year, Pasadena couldn't muster the 67 percent we need in the state of California to pass one for PUSD. So our teachers make due with less money per student than neighboring districts, once you factor out the money PUSD gets from the federal government for all those free and reduced-price lunches. (That money cannot be redirected for classroom use - heck, it barely pays for edible meals.)

This isn't a failing district. It's a district that's being failed by its community, which isn't paying living wages to nearly enough of its families. It's being failed by a community that refuses to tax itself to help pay for the extra support that its poor children need. (Remember that in California, Pasadena's property taxes don't go to PUSD. They're divvied up and spent on districts around the state.) And PUSD is being failed by a community where too many voters embrace a false narrative of school district failure when in fact PUSD is exceeding state performance averages in category after category.

PUSD is succeeding. We don't need to overhaul the district yet again. But we need to change the attitudes of more people in the Pasadena community, to gather more support for finding new ways to provide PUSD's at-risk students the support that they need, and deserve. That's how we will build upon our existing success and finally close this achievement gap. And that's how we'll make PUSD a national model school district in which all students - regardless of family background - excel to their full potential.

Robert Niles also can be found at

From a reader at on March 7, 2011 at 10:18 PM

Reality. Ah, what a refreshing thought. Thanks, Robert for this article. I've lived in Pasadena 33 years and have had two youngsters go through PUSD. We've stayed close and understand than while we have a ways to go to bring the quality education our children deserve, PUSD is doing a fine job. Especially considering the tens of millions of dollars the economic conditions have forced the state to funnel away from PUSD.

From a reader at on March 8, 2011 at 12:45 AM

Robert very well said. I heartily agree. Our educators are constantly asked to do more with less resources then blamed for not meeting the standards. However I believe the problem goes even deeper. The whole concept of making every student fit the current standard educational model is rigid and an unsatisfying experience for the student. Just teaching kids to pass tests is not enough the 21st century yet this is our educational model. When students are encouraged to look for creative ways to master the material they can own their learning process and education becomes fun!. Once the student's curiosity ignites they are unstoppable. It doesn't have to cost more either.

From a reader at on March 8, 2011 at 1:46 PM

Thanks for this interesting article and breaking down test scores by category - it does make sense when comparing PUSD to neighboring districts. And I agree that no matter whether PUSD is above or below the state, more needs to be done to close the racial gap in test scores.

However, I disagree with you on two points: the first is when you compare parcel taxes in Pasadena to parcel taxes in neighboring districts - as you yourself pointed out, there are many more low-income folks in Pasadena than in San Marino or La Canada, so how can we expect Pasadena folks to pay as much. (It is probably heresy to say it, but I think they should not spend a dime on computers for the elementary schools while other parts of schools need money - there is nothing an elementary school kid can learn from a computer that they can't learn from books or a library).

Second, I disagree with your broad-brushing families where both parents work as not suppportive of kids doing homework. There are many two-working-parent families that put a priority on homework (mine included), including families where both parents are highly educated and moms as well as dads have professional jobs they are passionate about, and families where parents are not as well educated but still know the value of their child's education. I wish that you were a little more careful with what you published, to that point.

From Robert Niles on March 8, 2011 at 3:21 PM

I'm in complete agreement that parcel taxes are a clumsy way to finance schools. But given that's the only local financing option in California for school operations, it's either pass that or your local children do without. In my ideal world, we dump Prop 13 and come up with a new financing system for education in California. But getting two-thirds for a parcel tax in Pasadena seems to me quite a bit easier than getting two-thirds across the state for a Prop 13 repeal.

Second, I think you read too much into my piece. I'm simply listing a few of the ways that family situations can manifest as obstacles to academic performance. These aren't guarantees of poor performance, just as the lack of these situations do not guarantee academic excellence.

There's a huge difference between families where parents work, but who earn enough to enroll their children in an enriching after-school program (or shift schedules to have one parent home after school) and families where they leave no caregiver after school or even well into the evening, and a child is left alone. That happens in Pasadena and communities across the country, and those students suffer as a result.

Those parents aren't lazy, as some critics would portray them. Far from it, they're often working much harder than other parents in the community, but not earning an hourly wage high enough to allow them to spend the time with their children that the children need. And they're earning that low wage, in many cases, because they didn't get the education that could have helped them earn more. Tragically, the cycle continues, as their children fall behind, getting too little help from either their family or the community after school's done for the day, the weekend or the summer.

From a reader at on March 9, 2011 at 1:09 PM

Excellent article, Robert. Pundits have been grousing for years about how the United States, California, Pasadena, etc, are falling behind the world in public education. You point out correctly that properly analyzed statistics can teach us a lot about where we are succeeding and failing. BY all measures, PUSD is a success story. Your conclusion is correct also; we need to find ways to increase the dollars available to give economically disadvantaged students the extra pre-school and after school assistance they need to succeed.

From on March 9, 2011 at 3:38 PM

Hi Robert. Nice post. First off I'd like to make it clear that I am pro public education and pro-pusd. But alas, I am, by nature, a devil's advocate, so I'd like to counter, if not at least put some of your claim's in perspective.

I guess my first point is I'm not convinced that many people use an average API score to measure or talk about PUSD (they probably care more about API on a school basis). But, assuming for a moment they do, I absolutely agree it is much more accurate to look at subgroup performance independently than trying to compare some kind of average that isnt 'corrected' for demographic ratios. In fact, the state thinks the same thing and came up with the similar schools ranking. If you compare PUSD elementary schools with our neighboring districts, we actually compare quite favorably using that metric. Our secondary schools dont compare so favorably there.

My second concern would be to use the state average as some kind of quality bar. To be fair, the state level of proficiency seems to hover around 50-60%. I'm not sure I'd consider beating that slightly to be necessarily favorable. Sure its better, but its not good. This is clear if you do the same kind of breakdown for API with our neighboring districts, at least based on ethnicity. The x-factor's are poverty, homelessness and foster kids--our districts are not really comparable in those factors.

I would also like to question the claim of success as it relates to the achievement gap. Recently, some data was presented at a board meeting that seemed to show our achievement gap has actually increased. (I actually have some theories as to why--whites are leaving the district at about double the normal enrollment decline rate, but they are leaving only the worst schools and in fact their rates are increasing at the better schools--however, I am only extrapolating this from enrollment data. This is actually a troubling thing because, besides the gap question, it also means our schools are becoming more segregated.) If you're interested, here is the presentation to which I am referring:

Warning, this is a 3MB file and seems to cause problems with some browsers (PUSD seems to have a habit of making its data more complex than it needs to be).

I am very glad you attempt to clarify the complexities of funding. This is something very few people understand (including me). In fact, I'd argue its even more complex than you describe.
One of the facts of 'official' funding is you get extra money thats supposed to 'offset' the increased difficulties imposed by your demographics. For example, if you have kids who are not likely to be properly fed, you will be given more money so that you can feed them. It is true that some of this money does not go into classrooms or education directly (though it does serve a purpose that contributes to educational success), however, much of it does.

The fact that parcel taxes exist in our surrounding districts is absolutely relevant, though I dont believe they inject enough additional funding to make up the difference between how much we fund our schools. For example, about 5% of SMHS' revenue came from the parcel tax (I assume thats consistent across the district), but the difference between us in ADA funding is closer to about 15% (you're right that comparing non-categorical funds is probably more appropriate).

The one thing we cant forget about though is private donations. I expect there is very much more in that category that our surrounding districts get over and above what we get, but I have not done the analysis. I have however, looked at some of the organizational 'private' contributions in PUSD and noticed that some of our schools raise on the order of $100,000 and more of additional funding per year from the community through PTSA, Annual Funds, or PEF-related grants or contributions. Unfortunately, our own schools vary in that number as well.

Finally, I could not agree more with your statement that, if anything, our community is failing our district. I personally believe a large part of what explains that is a lack of non-anecdotal understanding of our district. In my opinion, part of that is the district's fault, i.e., they are 'failing' in that regard. Your effort to explain these things is very much something we need more of and I applaud you for that. Thank you.

From a reader at on March 9, 2011 at 4:34 PM

Well said. How about adapting this piece for the Star-News? The ideas of the community failing the district is an important point of discussion.

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