States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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The United States has lost ground among developed nations in promoting quality education for its students. To counter this troubling trend, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association worked to create a state-led program called the Common Core State Standards. Common Core is intended to ensure that all American children receive a quality, rigorous education. Although education policy is becoming increasingly uniform across the country, state school systems are still far from equal.

Clearly, the stakes for students are high, and the U.S. still has a way to go to develop an education system that best-serves its children. Based on this year’s edition of Quality Counts, released by Education Week, the United States received a score of C for its school systems. Among states, Massachusetts had the best school systems in the country, with a grade of B, while Mississippi had the worst with a grade of D.

Click here to see America’s best school systems

Click here to see America’s worst school systems

Education Week’s grading framework incorporates three components: Chance for Success, K-12 Achievement, and School Finances. According to Sterling Lloyd, senior research associate at the Education Week Research Center, the new index looks at a range of factors to assess education’s impact from “cradle to career.” These are the states with the best (and worst) schools.

Income can play a major role in a child’s success in school. Lloyd explained that “we’re not talking about demography as destiny.” However, “research tells us that students who are in stable communities and in higher income families [tend to] have better educational success later on.” While the relationship is far from simple, children from wealthier families are often exposed to more enriching activities and often have greater stability within their family lives. Families making less than 200% of the national poverty level are generally recognized as low income. Education Week examined those living in families above that threshold. In all of the states with the worst school systems the percent of children in families earning incomes above the threshold was less than the national rate of 55.4%. In the states with the best schools, on the other hand, children were far more likely than most U.S. children to come from relatively wealthy families.

Parents play perhaps the largest role in the development of their children. Just as a higher family income may help increase the advantages for students, well-educated parents can also often improve a child’s chance for success. A child has “greater advantages when you can draw upon a foundation of knowledge and [when] teachers are not having to address deficiencies in learning once kids get to school,” according to Lloyd. Relatively few children in the states with the worst school systems had at least one parent with a post-secondary degree. In Nevada, less than 34% of children had a relatively well-educated parent, versus a national rate of 47.2% the lowest rate nationwide. Conversely, in all of the top states for education, more than half of children had at least one parent with a post-secondary degree.

More generous school budgets also often lead to stronger educational outcomes. Nationwide, school districts spent $11,735 per pupil in 2012, with 43.4% of children living in school districts with per pupil expenditures that exceeded that figure. In all but two of the states with the worst school systems, however, school districts spent less than $10,000 per pupil. The best statewide school systems tended to spend far more. Vermont, for example, led the nation with a per pupil expenditure of $18,882.

Yet, as Lloyd pointed out, “the precise relationship between funding and academic achievement is a perennial debate among researchers. There’s not a consensus among researchers.” For example, although Idaho had nearly the lowest average education expenditure, more than 38% of its eighth graders were proficient on national reading exams in 2013, better than their peers nationwide. Nevertheless, on the whole, students in school districts with greater resources performed better on national tests. At least 40% of fourth grade students in nine of the 10 top states were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) versus the national rate of 34%.

All of these factors contribute to a child’s chances of graduating from high school, pursuing further education, getting a job, and so forth. In eight of the 10 states with the worst rated school systems, students were less likely to graduate from high school than their peers nationwide. In all but two of the top states, on the other hand, students had higher graduation rates than the national figure of 81% in 2012.

To identify the states with the best and worst schools, 24/7 Wall St. used Education Week’s Quality Counts 2015 report. The report is based on three major categories: Chance for Success, Finances, and K-12 Achievement. The Chance for Success category includes data on family income, parent education and employment, child schooling, and employment opportunities after college. Graduation rates are defined as the percentage of 9th graders who graduated high school in four years, and are for the class of 2012. All other data are for 2013 and are based on Education Week’s analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The finance category incorporates metrics on cost-adjusted per-pupil spending and how equitably spending was distributed across districts in the state in 2012. The K-12 Achievement category uses test score data from the NAEP. Test score data are for 2013. Each category was weighted equally in determining the final ranking.

These are the states with the best and worst schools.