A set of school rankings released by an Olympia-based think tank received mixed reactions from Tri-City school officials.
The Accountability Index, developed by the Washington Policy Center using the state's Achievement Index, gave five Tri-City schools the top ranking of "exemplary."
More than half of the area's schools were ranked as fair or struggling, despite how many more state and local tax dollars are being funneled to education compared with 30 years ago, according to the center.
"There are fewer students today in relation to the total population than in the past, and spending per student is the highest ever," the release said.
School officials said the rankings use data that typically measure student success but failed to factor in all the challenges of educating youth beyond funding.
"While their index, as stated, may be 'based on data compiled by the State Board of Education's 2011 Achievement Index,' it doesn't seem to present an accurate picture of the work being accomplished in our schools," said Lorraine Cooper, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District.
Southgate, Lincoln and Washington elementary schools in Kennewick and Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea elementary schools in Richland were ranked "exemplary." Ruth Livingston Elementary was ranked "very good," the highest ranking in the Pasco School District.
The center used the rankings to push education policy reforms it first proposed in 2008, including open enrollment, increasing teacher pay and giving school principals more school management control.
Mike Hansen, assistant superintendent with the Richland School District, said the accountability index is based on good data and "points to some things to focus on."
However, he said the rankings aren't flawless. The state has changed test formats so much the data isn't consistent.
Leslee Caul, spokeswoman for the Pasco School District, said the rankings don't factor in the challenges of educating English language learners and low-income students.
Students tested in fourth grade may not have high scores, largely because of their socioeconomic status and lack of understanding of English, but the district works hard to make those students successful by the time they graduate, she said.
"The index was designed to make it difficult to achieve exemplary, and so only those schools that serve higher income and English speaking students will ever be able to reach it," Pasco Superintendent Saundra Hill said in an emailed. "We are proud of what our schools are accomplishing for our kids."
Vista Elementary School in Kennewick was one of the lowest rated schools in Kennewick. Cooper said the rankings didn't acknowledge the work being done at the school. Vista has met third-grade reading goals for 11 years straight, and 90 percent of third-graders are reading at or above grade level.
"Every Kennewick school has a school improvement plan in place to ensure that our work is focused and results in achievement for all students regardless of any socioeconomic, cognitive or language learning challenges," she said.