States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts
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1. Massachusetts
> Overall grade: B
> Per pupil spending: $14,081 (11th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.3% (13th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 57.8% (3rd highest)

Based on a variety of measures related to school funding and academic achievement, Massachusetts earns a better grade than any other state in Education Week’s Quality Counts report. Early childhood education is important for cognitive development, and in Massachusetts, 57.8% of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in preschool, one of the highest shares of any state. Perhaps due in part to a robust childhood education program, Massachusetts has the highest share of fourth and eighth graders who are proficient in math and reading.

The state’s successes, however, are not entirely attributable to its education system. Children living in poverty face a host of challenges that can hinder educational achievement, and children growing up in Massachusetts are far more likely to grow up in a financially secure environment than most youth. Additionally, children raised by educated parents are more likely to do better in school, and in Massachusetts, 61.7% of children have at least one parent with a post-secondary degree, well above the 48.8% national average.

An old, restored chapel in Allaire Village, New Jersey. Allaire village was a bog iron industry town in New Jersey during the early 19th century. The chapel also served as a school.
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2. New Jersey
> Overall grade: B
> Per pupil spending: $15,946 (6th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 89.7% (2nd highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 63.7% (2nd highest)

Only three states report a higher median annual household income than New Jersey’s $72,222. Partially because of its strong tax base, New Jersey invests heavily in its public school system. The Garden State spends the equivalent of 4.8% of its taxable resources on its schools, second in the country only to Vermont. Each year, nearly $16,000 per student are spent on New Jersey schools — more than all but five other states.

While the connection between school spending and educational outcomes is complex, in New Jersey, high spending accompanies strong academic performance. The state has some of the largest shares both of math and english-proficient eighth graders, and about 38% of 11th and 12th grade advanced placement test scores in New Jersey are 3 or better — high enough to qualify for college credits — the sixth largest share of all states.

College Campus, Vermont
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3. Vermont
> Overall grade: B
> Per pupil spending: $19,654 (the highest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.7% (11th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 54.2% (5th highest)

Vermont is one of several New England states to have one of the highest rated education systems in the country. As is the case in most other states in the region, students in Vermont tend to do well in many standardized measures of academic achievement. About 45% of fourth graders and 44% of eighth graders are proficient in reading, each the third largest share of any U.S. state. Strong academic performance may be linked to Vermont’s relatively robust early childhood education program. Some 54% of three- and four-year olds in the Green Mountain State are enrolled in preschool, a larger share than in all but four other states.

Vermont spends $19,654 on its schools per pupil annually, more than any other state. The high per-pupil spending is largely due to higher costs resulting from the state’s many small, rural districts.

Manchester, New Hampshire, USA Skyline on the Merrimack River.
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4. New Hampshire
> Overall grade: B
> Per pupil spending: $15,386 (7th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 88.1% (7th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 53.1% (7th highest)

Children in New Hampshire are more likely to be raised in a financially secure household with college educated parents than children in any other state. Growing up in poverty can significantly hinder academic performance, and in New Hampshire, three-quarters of all children live in families earning at least twice poverty level income, a far higher share than the 57.2% of American children growing up in such households. Additionally, 63.9% of children in New Hampshire have at least one parent with a college degree, compared to less than half of all American children.

With so many children coming from backgrounds conducive to academic success, students in New Hampshire report better results in the classroom than is typical. The state is home to the second highest share of fourth and eighth graders proficient in reading than any other state in the country.

Johns Hopkins, Maryland
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5. Maryland
> Overall grade: B
> Per pupil spending: $12,922 (18th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.0% (16th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 50.5% (10th highest)

The wealthiest state in the nation, a typical household in Maryland earns $75,847 a year. Despite a strong tax base, Maryland’s $12,922 annual per-pupil education spending is only a few hundred dollars higher than the average spending nationwide. Though school spending is not especially high in Maryland, it is equitable. No state in the country has more even funding distribution across districts than Maryland.

Ranking relatively well in school finance, Maryland also does better than the vast majority of states in student achievement. In Maryland 55.8% of 11th and 12th graders’ advanced placement tests earned scores of at least a 3 by far the largest share of any state in the country.