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The Best School Districts in California: Excellence and Scope

April 22, 2013
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As we enter the spring home-buying season, relocating parents look for the school districts that will give their children the best education possible. Choosing a top district promotes a bright future as well as a stable childhood. To find the K-12 school districts that provide consistently top-tier education, NerdWallet considered:

  • Do the schools meet standards for excellence? We defined an excellent school as one with an academic performance index (API) above 900.
  • Quality education at every level: Can a child attend excellent schools from kindergarten through high school?
  • Accessible education for all: Does the district promote educational quality for all students in the district?

Best school districts in California

1. San Marino Unified School District

Top Schools API
Carver Elementary 966
Huntington Middle 967
San Marino High 940

Not only does San Marino top NerdWallet’s comprehensive quality index, it earned the honor of highest 2012 district API in all of California. All of the district’s schools passed our standard of excellence, with API’s over 900. San Marino High School’s class of 2012 clocked in a mean SAT score of 1861, a full 24% higher than the state average of 1503. With committed educators and quality for all grades, San Marino is the top school district in California.

2. Piedmont City Unified School District

Top Schools API
Wildwood and Beach Elementaries 959
Piedmont Middle 943
Piedmont High 916

Each of Piedmont City USD’s five schools earned an API over 900, providing excellence at every level. An average SAT score of 1881 puts Piedmont High over 25% above the state; the class of 2013 boasts five National Merit semifinalists and 26 commended scholars. Among Piedmont High’s notable alumnae is Chris Stevens, the ambassador to Libya killed in service last year.

3. Manhattan Beach Unified School District

Top Schools API
Opal Robinson Elementary 962
Manhattan Beach Middle 945
Mira Costa High 910

Manhattan Beach has top-quality academics and the numbers to prove it – not that you’d expect anything less from the third-highest district-level API. With a graduation rate of over 95%, MBUSD aims to prepare its students for an ever-changing world of opportunity. The district’s accolades extend beyond academics: last year, the Mira Costa High School choir performed at Carnegie Hall.

4. Laguna Beach Unified School District

Top Schools API
Top of the World Elementary 924
Thurston Middle 944
Laguna Beach High 906

Recognized by Newsweek and others for academic excellence, Laguna Beach’s schools stand out on a national, as well as state, level. In sunny Orange County, Laguna Beach High School boasts class sizes under 30; a near-perfect graduation rate; and teacher salaries topping 36% of the state average. LBUSD invests in its students, teachers and staff; that investment clearly pays off.

5. Oak Park Unified School District

Top Schools API
Oak Hill Elementary 960
Medea Creek Middle 934
Oark Park High 924

Ventura County’s Oak Park Unified School District boasts its fair share of accolades: In the past year, it’s won the Golden Bell Award for its Chinese program; the Green Schools award, for the most eco-friendly district in California; and the Five-Star GATE Award for its nurturing of gifted students.

6. Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District

Top Schools API
Cornerstone Elementary 974
Ridgecrest Intermediate 958
Palos Verdes Peninsula High 906

Palos Verdes is no stranger to the spotlight: the Washington Post, Newsweek and others listed Palos Verdes Peninsula High School among the best in California and in the nation. Just last week, student Alexander Chen was named the California State Science Fair Student of the Year. The high school’s students speak 47 languages, and 98% go on to postsecondary education. But the PVPUSD commitment to education starts well before then: its top-ranked elementary school, Cornerstone, focuses on a holistic, well-rounded education. By involving parents and community members early on, Cornerstone prepares its young students for the rapidly changing world.

7. Irvine Unified School District

Top Schools API
Turtle Rock Elementary 980
Rancho San Joaquin Middle 958
Northwood High 910

Talk about impressive: Irvine USD has 23 elementary schools, and 21 of them score 900 or higher on the API. Turtle Rock Elementary boasts a score of 980, putting it squarely in the top 1% of state elementary schools. Northwood High School was among just 218 middle and high schools honored as a California Distinguished School in 2013. It will serve as a model for other schools in our state, helping to improve the standard of education for all Californians.

8. San Ramon Valley Unified School District

Top Schools API
Hidden Hills Elementary 979
Windermere Ranch Middle 978
Dougherty Valley High 937

Contra Costa’s San Ramon Valley USD has a lot on its plate, with 35 schools serving over 30,000 students. The district’s Inclusion Program, held up as a model for the state, ensures that speech therapists, psychologists, and health educators are available to all students. Five schools received the Distinguished Schools designation in 2013; over the past 10 years, district schools were designated National Blue Ribbon Schools 50 times. With a continued tradition of excellence and pioneering new education techniques, San Ramon Valley continually strives to improve.

9. Palo Alto Unified School District

Top Schools API
Herbert Hoover Elementary 995
Terman Middle 960
Gunn High 918

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto’s prestigious schools include heavyweights like Gunn High School and PALY. A full 94% of AP test-takers scored a passing grade of 3 or higher, and nearly three in four high school students take at least one rigorous AP course. Students enter into top-tier elementary schools – Herbert Hoover Elementary has the fifth-highest API in California – and graduate with the skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond. The mean SAT score of 1945 simply blows the state average out of the water.

10. Pleasanton Unified School District

Top Schools API
Mohr Elementary 964
Harvest Park Middle 943
Amador Valley High 900

Though an academic powerhouse, Pleasanton is known for far more than test scores. Amador Valley High Schools’ wind ensemble was chosen to perform in the 2013 Midwest Clinic, among the highest honors for a high school music program. Harvest Park Middle School showed significant growth in academic performance, improving its API by 18 points in 2012 and showing robust growth in minority groups. And the opportunities extend beyond the classroom as well: Lawrence Livermore Labs recently granted $100,000 to Amador Valley High and Fairlands Elementary to foster science in the classroom.


Data came from the California Department of Education

  • Each district must have at least one elementary, middle and high school with a 2012 growth API over 900 to be considered
  • We then considered the probability that a student would attend a school with an API over 900 at each level
  • Average API was used as a tiebreaker