Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

The controversial education law No Child Left Behind has been recently revised for the first time since its introduction in 2001. The revisions are expected to return a degree of control over education policy to state and local school districts. While federal, state, and local policies can have considerable impact on education in the United States, the way education is governed is just one of many factors driving educational outcomes. Parents and community leaders, environmental conditions, and the students themselves also play a role. Also, as proponents of the law’s revision have indicated, education systems vary considerably between states.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed education data for each state from the 2015 Quality Counts report released annually by Education Week. The report assessed measures in three broad categories that can determine the strength of a school system: school finances, student achievement, and environmental factors. Massachusetts leads the nation as the state with the best public schools, while Nevada’s public school system received the poorest review.

According to Sterling Lloyd, senior research associate at the Education Week Research Center, some states have made large strides over the years, but in general, states do not tend to move very much in the Quality Counts ranking. “It’s hard to move the needle on some of these indicators in the short run,” Lloyd said.

Click here to see the best (and worst) schools in each state.

Socioeconomic and other environmental conditions, for example, tend to change only over long periods of time. The prevalence of poverty as well as education levels among parents are major determining factors of public school quality. In the United States, 56% of children are raised in households with income at least double the poverty level. In all but two of the states in the top half of the rankings, this share is greater. Conversely, this was the case in only four of the 25 lower ranked states.

Factors such as these can determine the chances of success not just in school, but also over the course of an entire lifetime. These social and economic factors “capture the role of education in a person’s life, from cradle to career,” Lloyd said.

School districts in high-income areas tend to have larger school budgets. Average annual per pupil school spending exceeds the national average of $11,667 in 21 of the 25 states at the higher end of EdWeek’s ranking. At the lower end of the spectrum, educational expenditure in only three states exceeds the national average.

The causal link between school funding and educational outcomes is far from clear. According to Lloyd, however, while there is no consensus among researchers, advocates for greater school funding argue that “funding supports achievement by leading to access to the best teachers and the most up-to-date technological resources.”

At the same time, depending on the spending distribution among school districts, not all students in a given state can benefit from the state’s supposed high spending. In fact, states that spend the most per pupil each year also tend to have the least equitable funding distributions. All 10 states with the widest gap in education spending between the most well-funded schools and the most underfunded schools spend more per pupil per year than the corresponding national average of $11,667. Per pupil spending in Vermont and Alaska is higher than in every other state, yet the spending gap between the best funded 5% of school districts and the worst funded 5% of school districts is also higher than anywhere else in the country.

Standardized test results are one of the few ways to measure and compare academic success among states. U.S. students do not perform well on these tests. Massachusetts leads the nation as the only state where over half of fourth and eighth graders are deemed proficient in mathematics. In no state are more than half of fourth and eighth graders deemed proficient in reading.

While students in well-funded school districts are far more likely to perform well on tests than students in the less-funded school districts, this is not always the case. In some of these states, “students are faring well on tests in reading and math even though there may be significant barriers in the environment,” Lloyd said. In addition, “the states that have made the largest gains often have lower starting points to being with.”

To identify the states with the best and worst schools, 24/7 Wall St. used Education Week’s Quality Counts 2016 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 percent of public high school students who graduated on time with a standard diploma for the 2011-12 school year. All other data are from the most recent available year, 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 2013. The K-12 achievement category uses 2015 test score data from the NAEP. Each category was weighted equally in determining the final ranking.