Last April, the Washington State Board of Education published its Public School Accountability Index, a measure of how the state’s 2,000-plus public K-12 schools are educating more than half a million children. Earlier this week, the Washington Policy Center released additional data obtained from the Board along with its own findings that 60 percent of children in Washington’s public schools attend lower-tier schools.

Further analysis of the data by this blogger focused on the K-12 public school system as a whole, an examination that revealed a backward slide in Index rankings between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years.

The Board’s original Index reported each school’s rating on a seven-point scale, a number calculated from a formula including the percentage of students meeting standards in reading, writing, math, and science, as well as the school’s graduation rate. The index rating determined which of five categories a school was placed in: Exemplary, Very Good, Good, Fair, or Surpassing.

In theory, the Accountability Index released last year provided a simple-to-use tool for parents, educators, and voters to assess how their neighborhood school was doing, as distinct from the rest of the public education system. Too simple a tool, perhaps, and one that appears almost to have been designed to create confusion and diffuse criticism away from the state’s dominant role in setting education policy.

So what is the truth about Washington’s public schools? Borrowing words uttered by Winston Churchill long before Oliver Stone used them in his masterpiece of paranoid fiction, JFK, making a quantitative assessment of how the state is fulfilling its constitutional responsibility in education is like solving “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside of an enigma.”

Nevertheless, making an accurate assessment is an enigma-stuffed riddle-wrapped mystery many concerned citizens want to get to the bottom of.

After obtaining the full set of previously unpublished data from the Board, the Washington Policy Center came out with a plainly-worded set of findings and recommendations earlier this week. Under the direction of Education Policy Director Liv Finne, the local think tank concluded that the vast majority of public schools as well as the number of students attending them are categorized as only Fair or Struggling.

According to Finne’s policy note on the WPC website, the low level of performance by so many schools defies the logic of arguments made by those who want to increase public spending on education.

“Funding for Washington public education is at record highs,” Finne writes. “Since 1980 education spending, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled, while the number of students, due to smaller families, has increased by only a third. There are fewer students today in relation to the total population than in the past, and spending per student is the highest ever.”

The WPC states that Washington State is spending nearly $10 billion a year on operating funds – a figure that works out to $10,200 per student – and another $1.3 billion for school construction.

There’s a pitfall in dealing only with the Index as it pertains to individual schools, however, especially at a time when Gov. Chris Gregoire is seeking increased centralization of the state’s monopoly on public education.

Taking a second look at the Index data, this blogger finds ample evidence that the state education bureaucracy is failing based on declining trends in overall performance. There is also reason to believe that the reporting scheme itself — with its irregular conversion of seven-point ratings to five-category labels, none of which use commonly-used scales or references – conceals the true condition of our public school system.

A simple weighted averaging method was applied to the Board’s data with the thought that it could shed some light on how the system was doing as a whole. In fact, the results of the analysis cast more shadows. Not only does a closer examination of the ranking system reveal that the baselines are easily misperceived, depending on what generation you come from.

For example, a school in the Good category has received an index score of 4, but that corresponds to only between 60 and 69.99 percent of students in that school meeting standards in core areas. In past decades, that would translate to anywhere between a C- and a failing grade, but on the Board’s scale it appears to be average. This is not your father’s report card.

(There’s the matter of what the standards are underlying the entire evaluation process. Oy vey.)

Making a layman’s analysis is therefore complicated, but can be demystified by overlaying the different schemes for measurement on a single chart, as below. When the statewide indexes are averaged and the results represented in this way, the data shows that the state should be receiving a failing grade and it’s doing a worse job this year than the one prior.

For all students, the index rating for the 2009-2010 school year was calculated using our method as 3.81, a drop from 3.75 in 2008-2009. Neither score ranks higher than Fair.


The picture gets worse with low-income students — 43 percent of enrolled students – who averaged at 2.62 for 2009-2010. On the bright side, that reflects a slight improvement from the previous year’s score of 2.57, but one that is offset by a 0.12-point decline in the non low-income student population over the same period.

Math and science education also continue to be areas resistant to being perfected though bureaucracy. For the 2009-2010 school year, scores of 3.29 and 3.02 for math and science respectively should be a serious concern in a state that has its economic future staked out in the development of over-the-horizon technologies.


Our assessment of Struggling among low-income students in science and math is another indication that the way public education is delivered in Washington is not availing many of the great equalizing force in our society – the ability to educate oneself.

One path to a solution that has been proposed by many is allowing pilot innovation programs to operate in Washington on a limited basis. This idea was recently moved forward in the State Legislature in Olympia in the form of House Bill 1546, introduced by State Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-Covington).

According to its supporters, HB 1546 would allow school districts to set up “innovation” schools that would have greater flexibility and could act on input from the local community.

“The idea is that those closest to the students know what is best for their students,” Hargrove said in a released statement.

Click for more information about the Washington Policy Center’s Public School Accountability Index.


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