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Early Test Scores Show Promise for Parent Trigger, Says Advocacy Group

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By Karla Scoon Reid. Cross-posted from the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.

The contentious debate over California's so-called parent-trigger law usually boils down to whether a parent-led overhaul of a failing school will yield tangible results.

Proponents of California's Parent Empowerment Act believe that recent student test-score results from parent-trigger schools prove that some academic progress is being made. The Parent Empowerment Act allows parents whose children attend chronically low-performing schools to petition or "trigger" their district for education changes, including hiring new staff or converting the school into a charter.

Parent Revolution, a parent-advocacy group that has assisted parents to use the law, issued a press release this month examining the California Standards Test science scores of 5th graders attending two parent-trigger schools. (California suspended most state testing last year as it ushers in new Common Core State Standards-aligned assessments, leaving few student test results to compare.)

From 2012-13 to 2013-2014, Parent Revolution says, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the science assessment at the Los Angeles Unified School District's 24th Street Elementary School, tripled—jumping from 21 percent to 65 percent. For Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto, California's first parent-trigger school, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the science test nearly quadrupled—climbing from 12 percent to 47 percent. 

Admittedly, this is one assessment, one grade level, and one year of student test scores, so drawing conclusions from this data is a tricky proposition. Although, Parent Revolution officials acknowledge that the data is extremely limited, they still believe these recent science test scores represent an encouraging sign showing that the parent-trigger can prove to be an effective tool for parents desperately seeking school reform.

"We know from research that at best, only 25 to 30 percent of school turnaround efforts generally succeed, but we are confident that the consistent presence of organized and engaged parents will make our efforts substantially more successful," Gabe Rose, the chief strategy officer at Parent Revolution, said in the release.

In the end, however, it may be the parents and not the student test scores that serve as the most crucial indicator about the success or failure of parent-trigger schools. A parent survey commissioned by Parent Revolution at the end of the 2013-14 school year found that 91 percent of Desert Trails parents and 83 percent of parents at 24th Street Elementary said their schools had improved in the last year. (Los Angeles Unified and a charter operator, Crown Prepatory Academy, are currently managing 24th Street Elementary.)

Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association, said although the union is pleased to see student progress, it's "premature to conclude these scores necessarily reflect a genuine gain in achievement for individual students enrolled at these schools before the trigger was pulled."

In an email, Wells noted that at Desert Trails student enrollment changed significantly following the parent-trigger process, which transformed the school into a charter. (That also means these are not the same group of parents who advocated for the charter takeover, either.)

"Even with more data," Wells said, "we may still end up with an apples and oranges comparison based on student population shifts that come after a divisive trigger battle."

So, while an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal uses the word "miracle" in connection with the academic gains at these two parent-trigger schools, proponents and opponents alike may never come to a definitive verdict on the effectiveness of these controversial transformations.

Meanwhile, in Adelanto, a parent who was on the front lines of Desert Trails' parent-trigger struggle is running for the local school board. The San Bernardino Sun reports that Doreen Diaz is one of 13 candidates vying for three seats on the Adelanto Elementary School District board in November. Diaz, a former member of Desert Trails' parent union, was working as an organizer for Parent Revolution prior to her candidacy. She took a leave of absence to run for office.

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