Choosing the right school for your children is such an important decision that it may help determine where you decide to live. It's not a simple choice, but with the right resources, you can be confident in your decision.
Standardized Test Scores.
The California Department of Education measures the academic strength of public schools using the Academic Performance Index (API), a score between 200 and 1000. The goal is for all schools to score above 800. While higher scores are generally better, you need to take into account if there are teachers who "teach for the test" and schools that take advantage of the rules that govern "numerically significant groups." You can compare schools on criteria such as API scores, class size and parents' ratings at GreatSchools.net. They also publish an article about 10 Things Parents Should Know about the API. PSK12.com provides similar information and charges a subscription fee for running reports and generating comparisons.
California Distinguished Schools.
The California Department of Education also recognizes "exemplary and inspiring" public schools with the California Distinguished School Award. You can find honorees on their web site by year or by county. Any school given the "distinguished" label may use the title for four years and the award is often a point of pride for the entire community, not just the school.
Subjective factors to keep in mind include:
Ethnic Diversity. Living in California affords you the opportunity to expose your children to a broad range of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.
Emphasis on Arts and Athletics. In this age of standardized tests, it's easy for schools to focus only on what the government measures and not on preparing your kids for their futures. A balanced curriculum is a sign of a school that is strong enough to meet a variety of needs and still meet the legislated requirements.
Parent-Teacher Communication. Being able to communicate by phone or email with teachers on a regular basis helps ensure that you have both an understanding of and input into your children's learning process. GreatSchools.net has a library of articles that will help you identify what matters most and help you learn about your options.