States With the Best and Worst School Systems

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A new report has determined that the United States’ education system is improving. The bad news is that it still gets a C+.

Click here to see states with the best schools

Click here to see states with the worst schools

Recently, education news and research publication Education Week released its 17th annual survey of the status of education in all 50 states. The report, entitled Quality Counts, grades each state based on six key metrics — K-12 achievement; standards, assessment and accountability; the teaching profession; school finance;  students’ chances for long-term success; and transitions and alignment. Maryland ranked first for the fifth straight year, with a grade of B+, while South Dakota ranked last, with a D+. Based on Education Week’s 2012 survey, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with the best and worst education systems.

When the question of how best to improve the educational system comes up, the discussion sometimes turns to raising test standards or increasing the accountability of teachers. But one of the most regularly debated issues is school funding. Many contest that the schools that perform poorly across the board do so because of a lack of funding, while the ones that do well are simply funded better.

A review of the data shows that the issue is much more complicated than that. Of the the states that spent the least per student, most did not do well across the other measures. Just one state among the bottom 10 spenders — Texas — scored among the best 20 in Education Week’s overall rank.  Among the 10 states that spent the most, several did well overall, but others did poorly across the six measures. New York spent the fourth most per student, and received Education Week’s third best grade overall. Alaska, on the other hand, spent the third most among students, but was tied with Mississippi as the fourth worst state overall.

Based on this data, it appears that states must meet a basic level of spending to be able to provide decent services for their students, but having good funding does not  guarantee a good educational program. In an interview with 24/7 Wall  Street, Amy Hightower, director of the EPE Research Center, which runs Education Week, confirmed that this is an observation that other experts have made.

While every state excelled in certain measures, a few elements in particular were  shared by many of the best state education systems, and missing from the worst. One example is the transitions and alignment section, which measures how schools use programs and resources to help their children move from pre-k to kindergarten, middle school to high school, and high school to college or employment. Seven of the 10 best-scoring states overall were in the top 15 for transitions and alignment in this year’s report. Hightower explained: “Ten years ago, this was not part of the conversation.” But policymakers eventually recognized the importance of giving children consistent messages as to what they needed to learn throughout their education. “[policymakers] were making these sectors islands,” she continued, “and what we need are bridges.”

Those states with higher-rated education systems also tended to have better achievement on tests and in graduation rates. Of the 17 states that scored a D or worse in  K-12 achievement, which measures graduation rates and test scores, 11 scored in the bottom third overall.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 best-scoring and 10 worst-scoring states, based on Editorial Projects in Education’s 2012 Quality Counts report. To generate each state’s overall grade, Education Week combined six separate categories, which each measures a different component of the education system. These categories are  K-12 achievement; standards, assessment and accountability; the teaching profession; school finance;  students’ chances for long-term success; and transitions and alignment. K-12 achievement measures test scores and graduation rates. Standards, assessment, and accountability determines whether schools measure student achievement through standardized testing and rewards and penalizes schools based on performance. The teaching profession category measures whether schools hold teachers accountable to high standards and provide incentives for performance. School finance measures whether the state is spending money on students and identified funding inequality. The students chances for long-term success category measures family background and employment opportunities. Transitions and  alignment measures how schools manage student transitions between school systems and secondary education or employment. All data is for the most recent available year.

These are the states with the best and worst schools.