Students in Washington have made incremental progress but failed to meet targets set for 2016, and at this rate will not make state goals for 2020, according to a new report.

Share story

As the 2017 legislative session nears and the din around school funding grows louder, a snapshot of exactly where Washington education stands relative to other states may provide useful context.

The verdict? Incremental progress overall, according to a report released last week by the state Board of Education. (And Washington students scored higher on the new Smarter Balanced exams last spring than those in almost any other state.)

Yet below that surface, the board’s report paints a dismal picture.

Washington lags comparable states in the number of children who start kindergarten ready to learn, for one.

Its low-income fourth- and eighth-graders also score lower in math and English than their peers in eight other states similarly driven by entrepreneurialism, innovation, globalism and information technology. Those states are Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia.

Against that crowd, Washington also fared poorly in high-school graduation rates.

Nine years after leaving school, only 25 percent of Washington students in poverty had any type of college degree or training certificate. (Washington’s class of 2014 languished in the bottom quartile nationally for overall graduation rates, placing 38th.)

In other words, low-income students start out behind and never catch up.

“This is not their fault,” said Ben Rarick, executive director of the state Board of Education. “This is a concern about the system. It’s an adult issue, not a student issue. Those gaps present very early on, and they persist.”

Such reports are perennials in education. But “Indicators of Education System Health,” was marked by particularly strong language underscoring a “sense of urgency about the size and scope” of the gaps.

The timing, no doubt, is pegged to the upcoming legislative session.

Next month lawmakers are expected to begin hammering out an answer to the long-looming McCleary case, which found that Washington chronically underfunds public education.

“People tend to think of us as a high-performing state,” Rarick said. “But when you look at kids in poverty, we’re not particularly distinguished.”

The report emphasizes early-learning programs as a way out of this longstanding pattern, noting that “it will be easier (and cheaper) to prevent gaps initially, rather than to attempt to close them years later.”

Early learning, however, is not considered part of basic education in Washington.

And for Rarick, that means answering McCleary through a letter-of-the-law approach will not be enough to change these discouraging, and longstanding, trends.

His answer: a robust investment in pre-K, teacher training and better connections between high school and whatever follows.

Right now, Rarick said, there is “a canyon” between senior year and the next step.