In Our View: Improvement in Education

More transparency helps parents learn about each school's performance

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When Washington was granted an exception to the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act in July, parents of public school students had due cause to wonder if a new system would be an improvement. Less micromanaging by the feds sounded like a good idea. Greater transparency of school districts' performance records seemed encouraging. But would it just become another frustrating (not to mention costly, for taxpayers) detour into the bureaucratic briar patches?Those parents are starting to get some answers, and one announcement last Thursday by state education officials was encouraging. Specifically — even down to individual schools — many of those answers can be found at Washington State Report Card.

Upon reaching the website, click on the green AMO tab. (That stands for Annual Measurable Objectives). Using drop-down menus, parents and others can access reports about districts and schools, and those reports allow comparisons. It's all part of a rigorous reporting system that was required for Washington to become the 26th state to receive an exemption to the NCLB law.

The exemption was necessary for several reasons, two being the fact that NCLB has become outdated and ineffective, plus the fact that the increasingly gridlocked Congress has failed to reform education, even though NCLB came up for renewal five years ago.

Other requirements attached to the exemption involved strengthening the evaluations of teachers and principals, and expanding student proficiency requirements beyond reading and math. Washington is progressing in each of those areas. And the AMO reports provide valuable information for parents. "There is much more of a public, transparent posting of results," said Alan Burke of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Inspection.

Also encouragingly, there are many more subgroups to compare. Previously, schools were required to report performance of subgroups that included 30 or more members. That number has been lowered to 20, and an Associated Press story gave this example: A middle school in Bellingham has 25 black students who are exceeding expectations in reading and math. Under the 30-student standard, that information would not be available. Now, though, it is.

More transparency comes in the form of letters that school districts are required to send parents whose children attend schools in one of two groups. "Focus" schools (92 in the state) are the lowest 10 percent of the state's Title I schools (low-income schools receiving federal aid). "Priority" schools (46 in the state) are the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools, based on statewide results.

A third category, "Reward" schools (58 in the state), are Title I schools that show the most progress or have top student achievement on tests.

Overall, public education in our state has been upgraded from federally mandated "teach to the test" systems with unreasonably high goals, to more transparent programs that set individual goals for schools and subgroups.

We wouldn't be surprised if imperfections surface. After all, when the U.S. Department of Education is spending $71 billion (as of 2011), the educational assembly line will only naturally be long and complex. But the small progress seen in these two months leads us to wonder if all that intransigence by a paralyzed Congress might be a good thing in the long run.