States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

January 9, 2015 by Thomas Frohlich

178213764The 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.

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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.

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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.

States with the best schools

10. Minnesota
> Overall grade: B-
> State Score: 79.9
> Per pupil spending: $11,547 (25th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 88.0% (7th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 47.2% (3rd highest)

Minnesota’s school systems received a B- in Education Week’s report, which ranked them 10th in the country. One reason the state’s schools are so strong is likely the high educational attainment of the students’ parents. As of 2013, nearly 62% of children had at least one parent with a post-secondary degree, the highest proportion in the country. While Minnesota’s per pupil spending was in line with the rest of the nation in 2012, the distribution of school funding was more equitable in the country, with less than $3,700 per pupil separating the state’s best- and worst-funded schools. The consistent funding and childrens’ strong foundation at home likely helped students’ performance. In 2013, nearly half of all eighth graders were proficient on national standardized tests.

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9. New York
> Overall grade: B-
> State Score: 80.0
> Per pupil spending: $17,326 (4th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 78.0% (17th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 32.3% (18th lowest)

New York school districts spent an average of $17,326 per pupil in 2012, with all districts spending more than the national average expenditure of $11,735 per pupil. New York is able to spend so much money per student mostly because it commits a relatively large portion of its budget to education. The state spent 4.3% of its GDP on education in 2012, the fifth highest share in the country. Additionally, parents were highly likely to enroll their children in early education programs. Nearly 58% of eligible children were enrolled in preschool and 79% in kindergarten in 2013, among the highest proportions in the country. Despite the high levels of education spending, New York students’ scores on standardized tests overall were on par or even lower than the national averages in 2013.

8. Pennsylvania
> Overall grade: B-
> State Score: 80.1
> Per pupil spending: $13,653 (11th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 88.0% (7th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 41.9% (6th highest)

While Pennsylvania school districts spent an average of $13,653 per pupil in 2013, nearly $2,000 more per student than the national average, not all school districts could afford to spend so much. More than 26% of students lived in school districts that spent less per student than the national average, the second-highest proportion among the 10 states with the best schools. Nevertheless, 88% of students graduated high school with a diploma in four years, well above the national rate of 81%. Test scores for Pennsylvania’s public school students showed strong improvement between 2003 and 2013, rising at one of the faster rates in the country.

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7. Wyoming
> Overall grade: B-
> State Score: 80.6
> Per pupil spending: $17,758 (3rd highest)
> High school graduation rate: 80.0% (24th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 37.8% (19th highest)

As in other well-graded state school systems, Wyoming schools had among the largest budgets nationwide in 2012. School districts spent an average of $17,758 per pupil, more than in all but two other states. Large expenditures do not always result in excellent test scores, however. While more than a quarter of 11th and 12th graders across the nation scored at least a three out of five on Advanced Placement tests, less than one in 10 did in Wyoming, exceptionally low compared to other states with high quality school systems. Still, Wyoming students are perhaps more likely to succeed than most American children. Nearly 84% of children had at least one parent working full-time and year-round — the second highest rate nationwide. This is a strong indicator of positive early foundations that often lead to student success.

6. Connecticut
> Overall grade: B-
> State Score: 82.3
> Per pupil spending: $15,172 (6th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 86.0% (12th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 37.1% (21st highest)

More than 64% of three- and four-year old children in Connecticut were enrolled in preschool in 2013, a higher proportion than in any other state. Residents were also among the nation’s wealthiest. Nearly 60% of adults earned incomes above the national median, among the highest shares of any state. Similarly, nearly 70% of children had families with incomes that were at least 200% of the poverty level, also among the highest of any state. High incomes likely contributed to the state’s large school budgets, which in turn seem to have helped students perform better than their nationwide peers on standardized tests. While 34% of American fourth graders were proficient on reading exams, nearly 43% of Connecticut fourth graders were. High school students were also far more likely than their peers nationwide to excel on Advanced Placement tests.

5. New Hampshire
> Overall grade: B-
> State Score: 82.3
> Per pupil spending: $14,561 (8th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.0% (9th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 46.8% (5th highest)

New Hampshire was one of only two states to receive an A- from Education Week in the Chance for Success category. Nearly 72% of children lived in families whose income was more than 200% of the poverty threshold in 2013, the highest rate in the country. While roughly 47% of children nationwide had at least one parent with a college degree, 61% of New Hampshire children did in 2013. Children living in such families are more likely to attend college later in life. As of 2013, nearly 64% of students aged 18-24 in New Hampshire were either enrolled in a post-secondary degree program or had a degree, among the highest rates. New Hampshire’s school finances are similarly strong. On average, school districts spent more than $14,500 per student in 2012. However, the distribution of that spending is troubling. The spending gap between the state’s top and bottom districts was more than $10,000 per pupil, nearly the largest in the country.

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4. Vermont
> Overall grade: B
> State Score: 83.0
> Per pupil spending: $18,882 (the highest)
> High school graduation rate: 93.0% (the highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 46.9% (4th highest)

On average, Vermont school districts spent nearly $19,000 per pupil In 2012, more than in any other state. The state seems to prioritize education more than most, as Vermont spent more than 5% of its state GDP on education, also the most nationwide. While large budgets do not necessarily yield strong outcomes, Vermont students performed better than most of their peers in other states on national tests. Nearly 47% of eighth graders were proficient in mathematics, for example, a higher proportion than in all but three other states. The state also had the nation’s highest four-year high school graduation rate, at 93% in 2012.

3. Maryland
> Overall grade: B
> State Score: 85.2
> Per pupil spending: $12,435 (18th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 84.0% (16th highest)

Nearly 51% of 11th and 12th graders in Maryland excelled on Advanced Placement tests in 2012, the only state where a majority of students performed better than average on Advanced Placement exams. Maryland also had the largest nationwide improvement in students’ Advanced Placement test scores between 2000 and 2012. Younger students also outperformed their peers on standardized tests. Nearly 45% of fourth graders were proficient in reading, more than 10 percentage points higher than the national figure and second-highest nationwide. Unlike many other states with top-rated school systems, Maryland school financing was relatively well-distributed. The difference in per pupil spending between the worst and best-funded schools districts was $3,565, one of the lower figures reviewed.

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2. New Jersey
> Overall grade: B
> State Score: 85.5
> Per pupil spending: $15,421 (5th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 87.0% (9th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 48.9% (2nd highest)

New Jersey school districts benefit from the state’s wealth, with more than $15,000 spent per pupil in 2012, more than in all but a handful of states. While nearly all districts in the state spent more money per student than the national average of $11,735, some areas of the state spent much more. The gap between districts at the fifth and 95th percentiles for per pupil spending was nearly $10,000, more than twice as wide as the national gap in spending. Many students also enjoyed the benefits of early education. In 2013, 63.1% of eligible children were enrolled in preschool, the second highest rate nationwide.

1. Massachusetts
> Overall grade: B
> State Score: 86.2
> Per pupil spending: $13,157 (16th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 86.0% (12th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 54.6% (the highest)

According to Education Week, Massachusetts school systems are the best in the nation. Massachusetts eighth graders led the nation in mathematics aptitude, with 18.2% achieving advanced-level performance on math sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than twice the national rate. A greater percentage of the state’s fourth and eighth graders were also proficient in both math and reading than in any other state. Strong performance among young state residents clearly led to further success, as more than 70% of 18 to 24 year olds were either enrolled in college or had already completed a post-secondary degree, the highest proportion in the nation. As in other states with strong schools, Massachusetts residents are financially well-off. Nearly 70% of children lived in families with incomes at least 200% of the poverty level, the fourth highest proportion in the country.

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States with the worst schools

10. California
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 69.2
> Per pupil spending: $8,308 (6th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 82.0% (22nd highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 27.6% (8th lowest)

While Education Week gave the United States a C for its school systems, California received a D+ and the 10th worst overall score in the country. Although California’s eighth grade reading scores improved more than those of all but one other state between 2003 and 2013, less than 30% of students were proficient in reading as of 2013, one of the lowest percentages nationwide. California school districts spent $8,308 per pupil on average in 2012, one of the lowest expenditures and considerably lower than the national figure of $11,735 per pupil. Immigrants make up a relatively large share of California’s population. Only 63.3% of children had fluent English-speaking parents, the lowest proportion nationwide. This may play a role in the students’ performance at school, as children for whom English is a second language may find the primarily English instruction more difficult than other students.

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9. South Carolina
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 68.9
> Per pupil spending: $10,141 (18th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 72.0% (5th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 30.8% (16th lowest)

South Carolina had nearly the worst four-year high school graduation rate in 2012, at 72%. The state was also one of only a few where student scores on reading standardized tests worsened between 2003 and 2013. As in most states with the worst school systems, incomes in South Carolina were also relatively low. Less than 49% of children lived in families earning incomes of at least 200% of the poverty level, one of the lowest rates nationwide. While the state has been struggling with low incomes, nearly 84% of eligible South Carolina children were enrolled in kindergarten programs, the highest proportion nationwide.

8. Louisiana
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 68.5
> Per pupil spending: $12,375 (19th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 72.0% (5th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 20.8% (2nd lowest)

Louisiana school systems spent $12,375 per pupil on average in 2012, the only one among the states with the worst school systems to exceed the national average expenditure of $11,735 per pupil. Despite the relatively higher spending, less than 21% of Louisiana eighth grade students were proficient on the NAEP in 2013, less than in all but one other state. Many students underperforming on national exams may not have been able to catch up by the end of their high school careers. Louisiana had one of the worst four-year high school graduation rates, at 72%, versus a national rate of 81%. Also, as in many other poor state school systems, 11th and 12th grade Louisiana students were among the least likely to excel on Advanced Placement tests in 2012.

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7. Alabama
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 67.7
> Per pupil spending: $9,563 (14th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 75.0% (8th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 19.7% (the lowest)

Nationwide, more than one-third of eighth grade students were proficient in mathematics. In Alabama, however, less than one in five eighth graders did, the lowest rate nationwide. Alabama children also struggled with reading far more than their peers in other states. Just over 25% of eighth graders were proficient in reading, less than in all but three other states. Like other poorly-rated state school systems, adults in Alabama also tended to have lower incomes. Just 44.5% of working-age adults had incomes at or above the national median, one of the lower rates. Poor test scores, in addition to low statewide incomes, likely made pursuing higher education more difficult for many young Alabamians. While 55.1% of American young adults were enrolled in or had completed a post secondary program, less than half of 18-24 year old Alabama residents had, one of the lower rates.

6. Idaho
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 67.7
> Per pupil spending: $8,123 (4th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 84.0% (16th highest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 36.5% (22nd highest)

While wealthier school districts almost always have larger per pupil budgets than poorer ones, in Idaho the gap in per student spending was relatively small. Still, most of Idaho’s school districts were quite poor. Compared to the 43.4% of school districts nationwide that spent more than the U.S. average per pupil in 2012, just 3.8% of school districts in Idaho had above average expenditures, one of the lowest figures reviewed. Despite the relatively low education spending, 38.3% of Idaho eighth graders were proficient on the reading sections on the NAEP, one of the higher rates and more than the national figure of 34.3%.

5. Arizona
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 67.6
> Per pupil spending: $8,101 (2nd lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 77.0% (12th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 30.6% (14th lowest)

School districts in Arizona spent $8,101 per pupil in 2012, the second lowest average expenditure nationwide. As in most of the worst-rated states, Arizona allocates relatively little tax revenue to education. The state spent just 2.5% of state GDP on education in 2012, nearly the lowest proportion of any state. On average, across the U.S. education expenditure accounted for 3.4% of state GDP. As in other states with high proportions of immigrants, many children from Arizona’s non-english speaking families may find instruction more difficult than their peers. Less than 78% of children had parents who were fluent English speakers, one of the lowest rates in the country. While more than 34% of eighth graders nationwide were proficient on reading exams, less than 28% in Arizona were, one of the lowest rates.

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4. Oklahoma
> Overall grade: D+
> State Score: 67.6
> Per pupil spending: $8,624 (7th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 79.0% (21st lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 25.0% (6th lowest)

More than 34% of eighth graders nationwide demonstrated proficiency on the NAEP in 2013. In Oklahoma, just 25% of eighth graders did so, one of the lowest rates reviewed. While high education expenditures do not guarantee better performance on national exams, relatively small school budgets in Oklahoma likely played a role in the students’ poor performance. School districts spent $8,624 per pupil in 2012, among the lowest average expenditures. Similarly, children from wealthier backgrounds can often count on more advantages than their less wealthy peers, and Oklahoma residents were relatively poor in 2013. Less than 45% of adults earned incomes at or above the national median, one of the lower proportions in the country.

3. New Mexico
> Overall grade: D
> State Score: 65.5
> Per pupil spending: $9,736 (16th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 74.0% (6th lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 22.7% (4th lowest)

The four-year high school graduation rate in New Mexico was less than 74% in 2012, below the national graduation rate of 81%. New Mexico’s students also performed poorly on standardized assessment tests, with just 21.5% of fourth graders deemed proficient in either math or reading. Nationally, 34% of fourth graders were proficient in either subject. Poor test scores may be a reflection of insufficient funding. New Mexico’s school districts spent an average of $9,736 per student in 2012, roughly $2,000 less than average spending level across the nation.

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2. Nevada
> Overall grade: D
> State Score: 65.0
> Per pupil spending: $8,141 (5th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 60.0% (the lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 28.3% (10th lowest)

Less than 34% of children in Nevada had at least one parent with a post-secondary degree, the lowest rate nationwide. Since parents play perhaps the most important role in a child’s chance for success, poor educational attainment rates among adults in Nevada were likely a factor in children’s relatively poor achievements in school. Similarly, early education can set the stage for a child’s entire academic career. Young children in Nevada were among the least likely nationwide to attend preschool or kindergarten. With the lowest high school graduation rate in the country, at 60% in 2012, young adults in Nevada were also far less likely to pursue further education than their peers in most states. While 55.1% of American young adults were enrolled in or had completed a post-secondary degree program, just 40.5% in Nevada were — nearly the lowest rate.

1. Mississippi
> Overall grade: D
> State Score: 64.2
> Per pupil spending: $9,587 (15th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 68.0% (2nd lowest)
> Eighth graders proficient in math or reading: 21.3% (3rd lowest)

Mississippi had the worst schools in the country in 2013, receiving a D on Education Week’s report. The state’s K-12 achievement was particularly poor — Mississippi was only state to earn a failing grade in the category. Less than 22% of fourth and eighth grade students were deemed proficient in either math or reading, far below the 34% of students considered proficient nationwide in each age group. Poor test scores may be a product of the state’s poverty. Roughly 58% of families earned incomes that were less than 200% of the poverty level in 2013, higher than the nearly 45% of families who did nationwide. Additionally, only 38.4% of children had at least one parent who had a post-secondary degree in 2013, one of the lower rates nationwide. Finances, too, were a major problem for school districts in Mississippi. On average, districts spent less than $10,000 per student in 2012. Although it wasn’t the lowest per pupil spending, it was just half as much as Vermont, the nation’s highest per-pupil spender.

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