For years, state officials have said education administrators should produce an annual assessment of public schools “that is simple to use and understand” to give parents and taxpayers a clear, understandable measure of each school’s performance.
To implement this good idea, the legislature in 2009 directed the State Board of Education to create a “School Achievement Index” to measure the success or failure of each of Washington's 2,300 schools. Governor Jay Inslee endorsed the idea, saying the public should have access to “a system in which every school in the state receives a letter grade that’s accessible to parents.”
The governor and the Legislature’s intent was for school administrators to respond to public pressure and ensure that every child in Washington received a high-quality public education.The first School Achievement Index (announced in 2010) ranked Washington’s public schools as “Exemplary, (A)” “Very Good, (B)” “Good, (C)” “Fair, (D)” or “Struggling (F),” based on their performance educating students to minimum levels in reading, writing and math. These rankings were clear and direct, easy for the public to understand.
School administrators, however, complained the Index was a source of embarrassment for them, particularly for principals and teachers at the 1,208 schools ranked as Fair (D) and Struggling (F). District officials were uncomfortable with state reports showing they had assigned 597,000 students to attend these poor-quality schools.
In response, Chairman Jeff Vincent and other members of the State School Board weakened the Index in 2013, by changing the ranking system and shifting away from measuring actual student learning to estimating student growth. The weaker standard made school administrators look better to the public.
By 2017, the watered-down School Achievement Index showed that even under the weakened standard nearly one in six public schools ranked as Underperforming (F) or below.
The Board found that administrators had still assigned more than 162,000 students to low-quality schools.
On March 15, 2018, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and the State Board of Education said they had canceled the School Achievement Index. The new Washington School Improvement Framework (WSIF) now categorizes schools by the level of funding officials believe schools should receive. In other words, they created a Spending Index.
Under WSIF, successful schools are no longer recognized, but are lumped into a single category labeled “Foundational Supports.” Low-performing schools are grouped under vague headings called “Support Tier 1, Support Tier 2, and Support Tier 3.”
WSIF changed a state ranking from one that informed the public about levels of learning achievement to one that calls for some schools to receive even more public money.
Top down initiatives like the School Achievement Index have failed or been repealed again and again. Over the last thirty years, every proposed federal and state effort to hold the public schools accountable for performance has failed to improve the schools.
Here are some examples:
In contrast to these top down efforts, policies based on school choice are providing a practical solution. These include public charter schools, online learning, vocational schools, tutoring services, tuition vouchers, tax credit scholarships and Education Savings Accounts.
Forty-three states and the District of Columbia now offer public charter schools, educating 3.2 million students. Thirty states and D.C. offer 61 different school choice programs, benefiting nearly 500,000 students. To cite one example, North Carolina has enacted an Educational Savings Account program, providing $9,000 a year to families with special needs, military families and students in foster care, so they can purchase educational services.
School choice programs are popular, and are making a world of difference to individual families.
School choice also gives the public actual, real and meaningful accountability for school performance, accountability that can’t be watered-down or repealed by embarrassed school officials and politicians.