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Faulty Data in Nonprofit's "F" Grade for School District

Incorrect data was used by a nonprofit group that ranked the West Contra Costa Unified School District as the worst large district in the state in serving disadvantaged students.

Faulty Data in Nonprofit's "F" Grade for School District Faulty Data in Nonprofit's "F" Grade for School District

A nonprofit group's "report card" on California's large school districts gave its only overall "F" grade to the West Contra Costa Unified School District, but El Cerrito Patch found that some of the data used by the group was incorrect.

The Oakland-based advocacy organization, Education Trust—West, published a report April 27 that graded 146 of California's largest school districts according to how well they serve African-American, Latino and low-income students. The nonprofit group is affiliated with the national Education Trust, based in Washington, D.C.

West Contra Costa was the only one to receive a cumulative grade of "F," but some of the data on which the grade was based was unreliable, Patch learned. Patch informed Education Trust—West about the incorrect data on May 11, but the group has not corrected or retracted the report.

The report — " A Report Card on District Achievement: How Low-income, African-American, and Latino Students Fare in California School Districts" — received coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times and several other news organizations.

"At the bottom, and with the only overall F grade, is the West Contra Costa Unified School District," reported the Contra Costa Times.

The report gave each school district grades in four main categories and a cumulative grade. One of the categories is "College Ready," where the grade is calculated according to what percent of graduating students completed the so-called "A-G courses," required for admission to the University of California and California State University campuses.

For the "College Ready" category, the report relied on data reported on the state Department of Education's "DataQuest" website for completion of the A-G courses in the 2008-09 school year.

However, the figures reported on Dataquest for West Contra Costa are incorrect, according to a Patch review and to Wendell Greer, associate superintendent for the the West Contra Costa school district.

The DataQuest data is supplied by each district, and Greer said there were technical problems with the transmission of the district's information for the 2008-09 school year that caused the wrong data to be reported on DataQuest.

Karl Scheff, manager of the Educational Demographics Office of the state Department of Education, said that the data tranmission from the districts for 2008-09 suffered from "a number of implementation issues" and that some districts had trouble meeting the deadline for submission of full data. The reason for the problems was that the state that year had changed to a new reporting system called "CalPads," or California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, Scheff said.

The DataQuest data, which was used in by the Education Trust—West report, says, for example, that only 5.3 percent of African-American high school graduates in the district completed the A-G courses in the 2008-09 school year, far behind the state average of 26.8 percent.

The Dataquest figures for the district are a compilation of the district's school-by-school results, which are also reported on DataQuest. Anyone looking at the school-by-school data can immediately see a problem.

In the DataQuest figures, not a single graduate of two of the main high schools in the district, and De Anza High, completed the A-G courses, which is not only highly improbable but also flatly contradicted by the district's own data. According to district data provided by Greer, 50 percent of El Cerrito High graduates and 36 percent of De Anza High graduates completed the A-G requirements that year. (The district data provided by Greer is attached to this article.)

Similarly, the surprisingly low completion rates shown on DataQuest for other high schools in the district is contradicted by the district's data. DataQuest shows that only 2.1 percent of students from the district's largest graduating class at Pinole Valley High, for example, completed the A-G classes, compared to the district's data showing a more normal 37 percent. The DataQuest figures for Hercules High School appear to be an exception, showing an overall A-G completion rate of 45.2 percent, but this number too is contradicted by the district's figure of 34 percent.

The cumulative data for the district on DataQuest was based on these incorrect scores for each school, and it was the cumulative data for the district that Education Trust—West used in giving an "F" grade to the West Contra Costa district in the "College Ready" category for African-American and Latino students.

The district data given to Patch by Greer shows the A-G completion rates for all students and is not broken down by race or ethnicity. Nevertheless, the figures for all students, including those showing that zero students completed the A-G classes at some schools, include the figures for the African-American and Latino students.

Further evidence of the unreliability of the DataQuest data for 2008-09 can be found by comparing the A-G completion rates of the same schools in earlier years. The district's A-G completion figures for the previous year, 2007-08, also are extremely out of line from the norm, with nearly every school showing 0 students completing the A-G courses.

But for each of the 10 years previous, from the 1997-98 school year through 2006-07, the individual schools' A-G performances were much closer to the norm. El Cerrito's completion rate during those 10 years, for example, ranged from a low of 31.1 percent in 2003-04 to a high of 74.7 percent in 1997-98.

The executive director of Education Trust—West, Arun Ramanathan, said by email that copies of the report were sent to top officials in all the districts for their review before it was published. West Contra Costa did not contact the organization, he said.

"We ... have not received any questions or concerns from them since the report’s release," he said. "If they wish to contact us directly because of concerns about the A-G data, we are more than happy to speak with them."

Ramanathan did not return messages left by phone calls and email asking if the organization acknowledges the incorrect DataQuest data and if the report will be revised or retracted.

The organization's director of research and policy, Carrie Hahnel, who co-authored the report, said she could not confirm that the A-G data used in the report is incorrect, with data missing from many of the high schools. “I can’t see that it’s wrong,” said Hahnel. “I see that 0 percent is reported.”

As for whether or not Education Trust—West will fix the incorrect data for West Contra Costa, Hahnel said, “I don’t think we can do that for an individual district. The district needs to ensure that the data it is reporting to the state is the most accurate available.”

If the West Contra Costa Unified School District had accurately reported the data to the state, it is likely that the district would not have earned an "F" in the college-readiness category, according to Hahnel. “But it wouldn’t have earned an 'A' either,” she added.

Only five of the 146 districts received an "A" in the "College Ready" category, and no district received an overall grade of "A."

The districts were graded in three other categories based on API (Academic Performance Index) scores: overall performance, improvement in scores, and the gap between white students on one side and African-American and Latino students on the other.

West Contra Costa district spokesman Marin Trujillo said he did not see a problem with the reliability of the API data used in the Education Trust-West report.

Patch did not examine the API data. Two weeks ago, the Albany Unified School District announced that some of its 2010 API data reported to the state was flawed.

Patch also did not examine the A-G data on DataQuest for any other school district besides West Contra Costa.

We do not know what cumulative grade West Contra Costa would have received if the Education Trust-West report had used correct data for the "College Ready" category.

West Contra Costa district officials and other education experts acknowledge that the district suffers from many problems, including constraints on its ability to provide extra support to disadvantaged students. These problems were well known before the Education Trust—West report card, district officials say.

"This issue was of the highest urgency for us before the release of this report," Trujillo said.

El Cerrito High School Principal Jason Reimann told Patch, ”I cannot be certain whether the performance indicated in the report accurately reflects what is happening in the district. I do know we still have a great deal of work to be done to meet the challenges represented in the report.”

Reimann noted the West Contra Costa district's “massive motivation to improve our schools. The district has instituted a District Site Leadership Team and adopted seven commitments to families.”

Jason Freeman, an education advocate and El Cerrito parent, said one value of the Education Trust—West report is that it highlights districts with large proportions of disadvantaged students that have found effective ways to help those students.

"There are several districts dealing with similar challenges – high poverty, ethnic diversity, etc. – but having more success," said Freeman, who barely lost election to the West Contra Costa school board in November, when he came in a close fourth for three seats in the six-person race.

"What struck me the most was the consistent mention of professional development, especially Professional Learning Communities, as a high priority for the successful districts," he said, questioning whether West Contra Costa's apparent higher budget priority on class-size reduction and instructional minutes comes at the expense of professional development.

Todd Groves and Emily Henry contributed to this report.

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