Marine spatial planning (MSP) has the potential to balance demands for ocean space with environmental protection and is increasingly considered crucial for achieving global ocean goals. In theory, MSP should adhere to six principles, being: (1) ecosystem-based, (2) integrated, (3) place-based, (4) adaptive, (5) strategic, and (6) participatory. Despite nearly two decades of practice, MSP continues to face critical challenges to fully realize these principles, hindering its ability to deliver positive outcomes for people and nature. Here, we present the MSP Index, a tool for assessing progress in MSP processes based on MSP principles that can guide practitioners in operationalizing these principles. Using qualitative analysis of fundamental MSP guides, complemented with a literature review, we identified key features of MSP principles and developed these features into a scoring guide that assesses progress relative to each principle. We trialed and validated the MSP Index on six case studies from distinct regions. We found that the MSP Index allows for high-level comparison across diverse marine spatial plans, highlighting the extent to which MSP principles have permeated practice. Our results reveal successes, especially for the place-based principle, and failures to fully adhere to the adaptive and participatory principles of MSP. The Index serves as a guidance tool that would be best employed by practitioners and can inform science on the evolution of MSP. It is a user-friendly tool that translates MSP principles into practice, allowing for assessment of individual initiatives and comparison of diverse initiatives across ocean regions and nations.