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The Backstory and Forward Story About UW Grade Data Showing Poor Outcomes for Highline District

By Stuart Jenner

Making sense of the University of Washington data on high school performance was quite a challenge. I want to share some of the backstory of writing the story posted on March 9.
The week of March 12-18 is Washington Open Government Week, as noted in this story in the Seattle Times, so the story’s timing is particularly appropriate.

In the 2000s, up til around 2007, the University of Washington published a comparison of high school and college GPA data each year. They did this for approximately 76 high schools in King County and the Puget Sound region. This data was regularly published also in the Seattle Times.

In the 2000s, the Highline School Board had this metric on a list of overall performance metrics they used as proxies for student and district overall performance.

I had mentioned this data over the years to various people and wondered what the situation had been since the UW stopped releasing the data. (They had stopped because of moving to a holistic system. The GPA data was part of an index, with test scores as the other part of the index. Each student would know their index number and then could easily see what their chances were for admissions.)

A friend from elsewhere in King County decided in January 2020 to file a public records request with the UW. Seven weeks later, he received the results and shared them with me. This was right when Covid began to have a major impact on everything; it did not seem like the right time to share the data. (The friend, unfortunately, passed away in 2021.)

In March 2022, I decided to contact the UW public records office and ask for an update. I was assigned the same public records officer who had assisted my friend. In my request, I asked first for a repeat of the data from 2020 that my friend had obtained because I wanted to see if there had been any adjustments. Second, I asked for the same data, in the same format, for the next two years.

All I got was repeated delays. I would get emails saying, “we need more time.” Then after that deadline, I’d send a follow-up, and, eventually, get another “we need more time; this is permitted under RCS.”

On August 11, I emailed the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, asking if they had any insights. I heard back on December 28, 2022, nearly five months later. It turned out my email had landed in a junk folder that no one checks. The response was that I should read the Revised Code of Washington sections on public records and that I should consider hiring a private attorney at my own expense. The state does not provide any assistance to a citizen who a state agency blows off.

Finally, more than six months after my initial request, on September 29, 2022, the UW sent me a spreadsheet. Here is the column head info from the spreadsheet:

Unique_ID appl_yr appl_qtr high_sch_gpa FR_YR_GPA
7 digit number redacted 2019 4 3.91 3.62


This data was impossible to understand: there was no school identifier, for example. The spreadsheet had 21,236 rows with data from 2019, 2020, and 2021. It was meaningless!
I could not believe the public records officer could send that with a straight face and say my request was closed. I wrote back and said, “no, this is not closed; this is not school data.” I did get a response of: “oh, that’s what they sent me; I will follow up.”

Guess what the UW wanted? More time. There were a few more extensions.

Finally, on February 1, I got a spreadsheet. I was very excited until I realized there were far fewer schools listed, and the data was in a very different format. And also, the spreadsheet data had been pulled on January 10; the UW chose to hold the data for three weeks.

After looking at the spreadsheet, I wrote back and asked why some schools were not listed? Yes, some have small numbers, but Everett? Bellingham? Lakes in Tacoma? Those are notable schools; indeed, they would have 10 or more entrants to the UW in any given year. I asked the UW about this but have yet to hear back.

Last week, the UW released admissions decisions for the fall of 2023 incoming class. I talked with a parent who was very surprised to learn that getting into the UW does not mean students can get into a specific major by declaring it. Grades matter A LOT.
The UW does have data on which majors require applications, but finding out what it takes to get into a specific major involves contacting that major and asking. Students going into the UW would certainly benefit from knowing where they stand at entry. If their high school alums have UW GPAs below the level required for admission to a major, that would be helpful information to know.

In closing, I am not the only person who’s hit the wall in getting data. Jeff Selingo is a college admissions book author. He wrote extensively about the UW in his book “Who Gets In and Why.” In a follow-on article, he mentioned how he’d only gotten some of the information he asked the UW for. He did state the numbers the UW puts together about the high school to college GPA is important in the UW admissions decision-making process.

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