A think tank provides a new ranking of state elementary schools

This one, modeled on a Canadian survey, is a mash-up of lots of WASL data. The question is whether the complicated system tells us much we don't already know about where the good (and troubled) schools are.
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Students working on science at Nooksack Elementary

This one, modeled on a Canadian survey, is a mash-up of lots of WASL data. The question is whether the complicated system tells us much we don't already know about where the good (and troubled) schools are.

Don't let the Glenn Beck promo on their homepage dissuade you. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative/libertarian think tank in Olympia, is touting a new ranking system of Washington elementary schools based on scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). (Rankings for middle and high schools will come out in the Fall.) As far as test-score rankings go, the new list is a reasonable, if incomplete guide to rating state public schools.

The rankings attempt to go beyond other efforts by looking at more than just reading and math passing rates. At its loftiest, the ratings system seeks to take all the myriad test numbers spewed out by the state superintendent's office each year and assign them some meaning. 'ꀜIt provides parents with a conclusion,'ꀝ says Diana Cieslak, policy analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

Your kid gets a score. Why not her school? Or so the thinking goes.

The 'ꀜreport card'ꀝ was designed by the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver, B.C.-based group whose past work focused on schools in several Canadian provinces. As one would expect in a partner with the Freedom Foundation, the Vancouver group extols the virtues of a free market approach to public education. The idea of the list is to spur comparison and some market competition, which the groups feel are 'ꀜat the heart of improvement.'ꀝ

Folks at the state superintendent's office are mum, noting their in-house statisticians have yet to look at the report's ranking system. 'ꀜWe always caution parents that the WASL is just one of many factors in choosing a school. Just like you wouldn't judge a student's career just on their WASL score, you wouldn't judge a school based solely on their WASL performance,'ꀝ said Chris Barron, a spokesman for the assessment department.

Cieslak agrees, and notes that the list is meant as 'ꀜa springboard to ask further questions.'ꀝ

The foundation rated 1,130 elementary schools on a 10-point scale. The scale relies on comparing schools to each other. So a school's improvement on the scale has more to do with how it stacks up against other schools than actual improvement on the state tests. A 10-point school didn't necessarily ace every test at every grade, while a zero-point school didn't necessarily flunk everything.

Think of this as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for schools. Across the state, 15 schools share the No. 1 rank with scores of 10. Four schools share a zero score in the basement.

The point system factors in reading, writing, math, and science scores across all grade levels, as well as the proportion of tests that kids flunked, and a cursory look at the school's achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income fifth-graders.

Suffice to say, the math behind the ratings is more convoluted than a Rube Goldberg contraption. The only part the general masses (much less elementary school students) would likely understand is the part where they round to the nearest tenth.

For all that math, however, there are very few surprises. The top-ranked and bottom-ranked schools are generally the same ones you'll find on simpler ranking sites, or through that even-more-innate comparison tool: common knowledge. Here are the rich, white schools. There are the poor schools with the tribal kids and English language learners.

Even the success stories the rankings are purportedly meant to ferret out are generally already known. Cieslak pointed to the high-ranked yet high-poverty school, Nooksak Elementary, near Bellingham. The school in 2005 was awarded a Blue Ribbon by the federal government for its improvement on the WASL and has consistently posted higher passing rates than the state average since the tests were first given.

'ꀜI think all of the very complex calculating that they do masks how very simple the indicator is,'ꀝ says David Silver, a senior researcher at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing (CRESST) at the University of California Los Angeles. Slice and dice test scores any which way you want, but use test scores alone and you'll probably arrive at the same conclusions. 'ꀜI think that it promises a lot more than it delivers,'ꀝ Silver says.

The frustration felt by Cieslak and others like her is why there aren't more schools like Nooksak. If we know about these schools, why haven't their methods been duplicated yet? And if a public airing of a bunch of WASL passing rates isn't producing much, maybe a ranking system will spur some action.

Well, that, and many people really seem to dig these kinds of lists.

But that's where the whole ranking business starts to get in the way of progress. Rankings of schools are known more for the spotlights they train on the top-rated and bottom-rated schools than for a reasoned discourse on the nature of quality public education.

By assigning an ultimate value to test scores — then packaging it nicely in easy-to-digest terms — the rankings don't necessarily encourage further questions about, say, teacher turnover or where a kid slept last night. One only needs to look at the stalled progress under No Child Left Behind to see the same issues through a different lens.

Part of the problem lays in the inherent qualities of a test-based ranking system. For one thing, comparing one group of students to the preceding year's class isn't entirely reliable. A 2002 study of North Carolina elementary schools found that most of a school's supposed improvement doesn't mean diddly squat. Year-to-year comparisons are one of the biggest complaints educators and standards researchers have to No Child Left Behind, which relies heavily on such testing systems, and is one reason Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is open to more nuanced growth or value-added models as lawmakers look at reauthorization of the education act.

Lifting up struggling schools takes more than a number. But if all you want to look at are the numbers? Well, then rankings may not be so bad.

The Fraser Institute has been pumping out rankings like this for 11 years across Canada. Among Canadian lawmakers, support for the rankings splits largely down party lines. And each year, the rankings there draw headlines, controversy, and scads of attention (and ire). In other words, it's all entirely predictable. And now lucky Washington gets to join the party.

As one supportive Canadian lawmaker told The Vancouver Sun: 'ꀜWhether we like it or not, that is what parents want to know.'ꀝ

The real question is whether it's telling them anything they don't already know.


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