For parents, the chance to provide an excellent education for their children is a key promise of the American Dream. Figuring out whether the school your child attends measures up to that dream can be tricky, though. In areas where parents can choose between public charter schools, traditional public schools and private schools, the complications multiply. Recognizing which schools are succeeding becomes even more important, and more difficult.

Studying data on school performance gives a picture of how students at the school perform on standardized tests. Although such information is valuable, parents should realize it paints only a partial picture of a school's character.

The Change of Address website, a resource for families moving to new areas, provides a good list of sites for obtaining data on school performance, including these, which are free:, a free site that shows data from the "School Report Cards" issued by each state's education department., a comprehensive database of information on schools throughout the nation, along with helpful tips for parents., which offers customizable searches of U.S. schools.

"Take the time to make appointments with the principals of area schools and visit them yourself," the site suggests. "This will give you the opportunity to see the conditions of the school yourself and to ask the questions that are most important to you." And ask for referrals: "Whether it is new co-workers or family, ask about their knowledge of the schools in the areas you are considering. You may be surprised with the information that you can collect from the people right around you," Change of Address recommends.

A thorough guide for parents seeking excellence in education is available through The Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Testing, a research unit of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

The report identifies features of a good school that don't show up in test data, including:

Strong and professional administrators and teachers, with high morale.

A safe, clean, caring and well-organized school environment.

A high level of parent and community involvement and support.

Teachers who maintain high expectations, maintain good discipline and teach students how to learn through challenging assignments that clearly relate to the subject and other lessons being taught.

Strong emphasis on science, math, history, geography, English and the arts.

Athletic program kept in proper relation to academics.

A social and academic climate that gives students a strong feeling of belonging and pride; a sense of being wanted and nurtured.

A well-stocked library with up-to-date books appropriate for the age and interest level of the students.

Concern for overall achievement of students, shown by making assessment integral to school programs. Teachers don't teach to the test but ensure that concepts and skills reflecting the goals of assessments are taught.

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Strong community ties, with community leaders sharing talents and experience, thereby projecting positive images and serving as role models.

"When your child enters a school, it represents a commitment on the part of both you and the child, and gives a vote of confidence to the school that you believe it will do its best," UCLA's report said. "The education of your child is above all a cooperative effort that involves the schools, teachers, parents and the community."