Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

University of California Berkeley Campus Buildings
Source: Thinkstock

41. California
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $8,694 (6th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 82.0% (20th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 48.3% (17th highest)

Only about 64% of children in California are raised by English-speaking households, the smallest share of any state in the country. The disproportionate number of students raised speaking a foreign language likely adds additional barriers to academic performance, especially in earlier years. California ranks very low in certain fourth grade benchmarks. Only 29.2% of California fourth graders are proficient in math and 27.8% are proficient in reading, each the third lowest share of any state in the country.

However, older, high-achieving students in California tend to do better than their counterparts nationwide. Of all 11th and 12th grade advanced placement test scores in the state, 35.3% are high enough to earn college credit, a larger share than the 29.3% national average.

42. Arkansas
> Overall grade: C-
> Per pupil spending: $11,587 (24th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 84.9% (25th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 49.1% (14th highest)

Because household incomes play such a large role in the health of school systems and student performance, the low incomes in Arkansas largely explain the state school system’s low ranking. The typical Arkansas household earns $41,995 annually, second lowest after only Mississippi. With lower incomes come lower property values, which in turn yield lower property tax revenue — often the principal source of public school funding. Despite this, per-pupil expenditure in Arkansas, at $11,587, is only slightly below the nationwide average. This could be because the state spends a 3.8% share of taxable resources on education, unusually high compared with other poorly ranked state education systems.

Like other states on the low end of this list, however, Arkansas students are considerably less likely than their peers nationwide to achieve proficiency or advanced levels on standardized tests. For instance, while close to a third of eighth grade students nationwide are proficient in mathematics, less than one-quarter demonstrate mathematics proficiency in Arkansas.

Arizona State University
Source: Thinkstock

43. Arizona
> Overall grade: D+
> Per pupil spending: $8,125 (3rd lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 77.4% (7th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 37.1% (6th lowest)

According to Education Week research, just as income disparities between states can explain the differences in state school systems, income gaps among students often mirror achievement differences.

Test results suggest the income-based achievement gap is especially problematic in Arizona. The difference in test scores between Arizona’s fourth grade students eligible for subsidized school lunch programs (a common approximation of financial need) and ineligible students is larger in Arizona than in any other state. Different test scores across Arizona fourth and eighth grade students of all income levels are slightly above average at best. Fewer than 30% of state fourth graders are proficient in reading, one of the lowest percentages nationwide.

Woodland High School, Alabama
Source: Rivers A. Langley; SaveRivers / Wikimedia Commons

44. Alabama
> Overall grade: D+
> Per pupil spending: $10,038 (15th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 89.3% (3rd highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 42.4% (18th lowest)

Trailing most states in most education measures, Alabama’s school system was graded seventh worse of all states. Not all data, however, point to poor school performance. Alabama’s high school graduation rate of 89.3% is third highest. Similarly, over the decade through 2012, the state’s graduation rate increased by 12.9 percentage points, the fifth best.

Test scores in Alabama are also improving much faster than in most states. While this is a very good sign for the state, it is also generally the case in states where scores were low to begin with. And often, as is the case in Alabama, achievements remain relatively low despite the improvement. On the most recent round of standardized tests, just 26.1% of fourth graders and just 17.2% of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in mathematics, each dead last compared with other states.

French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana
Source: Thinkstock

45. Louisiana
> Overall grade: D+
> Per pupil spending: $11,774 (25th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 77.5% (8th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 50.1% (11th highest)

One of the best predictors of children’s future academic success is the education level of their parents. In Louisiana, just 38.2% of children have at least one parent with a college degree, the third lowest proportion of all states. Likely due in part to relatively low adult educational attainment, a large share of children live in low income households, which can hinder student development and achievement. Less than half of children in Louisiana grow up in families with incomes at least double the poverty level, close to the lowest such proportion in the nation.

Educational outcomes in Louisiana are not good. Only 29.6% of fourth graders in the state, and 17.9% of eighth graders, are proficient in math, each among the smallest share of any state in the country. In addition, 11th and 12th graders in Louisiana are far less likely to score well on advanced placement exams than their counterparts in the vast majority of other states.