Special Report

States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

College Campus Building, Bismarck, North Dakota
Source: Thinkstock

16. North Dakota
> Overall grade: C+
> Per pupil spending: $13,513 (15th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 86.6% (17th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 34.7% (4th lowest)

Preschool-age children have been shown to be much more susceptible to learning new information than their peers even a year or two older. Education policymakers point to this evidence as proof of the importance of preschool on a child’s development. In North Dakota, however, barely a third of three- and four-year old children are enrolled in preschool, compared to close to half of that age group nationwide. North Dakota also has one of the lowest kindergarten enrollment rates of any state.

Despite the low enrollment in early childhood education, the state’s high school graduation rate of 86.6% is above the national rate of 83.2%. Additionally, a very high share of students in the state have wealthy, educated families.

Des Moines, Iowa
Source: Thinkstock

17. Iowa
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $12,689 (20th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 90.8% (the highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 48.5% (16th highest)

The quality of a school system can have a major impact on a student’s education and eventual career success. However, it is by no means the only factor influencing education outcomes. A student’s home environment can make a big difference. Students with at least one college educated parent are much more likely to be successful in school than those without. In Iowa, 58.4% of children have at least one parent with a postsecondary degree, sixth most among all states. Iowa also has the highest graduation rate in the country, with 90.8% of the state’s high school class of 2014-2015 graduating on time, compared to a national graduation rate of 83.2%.

Dover, Delaware 2
Source: Thinkstock

18. Delaware
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $13,895 (13th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 85.6% (22nd highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 47.3% (18th highest)

Delaware’s education system is notable for a relatively equal distribution of funds across its districts. Not only are Delaware schools fairly well funded, but also 91.6% of all students attend school in districts where per-pupil spending is above the U.S. average. Overall, state schools spend $13,895 per student on average, roughly $1,700 more than the nationwide per-pupil spending of $12,156.

Despite above average funding, Delaware students underperform students nationwide in many tests. An estimated 36.8% of fourth graders and 29.5% of eighth graders are proficient in mathematics, smaller shares than the 39.4% of fourth graders and 32.1% of eighth graders nationwide. Delaware is also one of just a handful of states in which reading scores among fourth and eighth graders have worsened over the past decade.

City Skyline, Omaha Nebraska
Source: Thinkstock

19. Nebraska
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $13,982 (12th highest)
> High school graduation rate: 88.9% (5th highest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 40.7% (15th lowest)

Nebraska has a near nation-leading 88.9% high school graduation rate, compared to the nationwide rate of 83.2%. While the state has a high rate of students successfully completing high school, it has a relatively low share of children getting a jumpstart on their education. Only 40.7% of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in preschool, compared to a national share of 47.0%. Similarly, just 71.1% of kindergarten-eligible children are enrolled, the second-lowest share of all states and well below the national share of 78.0%.

Seattle (King County), Washington
Source: Thinkstock

20. Washington
> Overall grade: C
> Per pupil spending: $9,908 (14th lowest)
> High school graduation rate: 78.2% (10th lowest)
> Pct. 3 & 4 yr. olds enrolled in preschool: 40.4% (13th lowest)

Children from wealthier, more educated families are far more likely to do well in school than children who live in poverty, and many Washington students are well positioned for academic success. The typical Washington household earns $64,129 a year, roughly $8,400 more than the national median household income of $55,775. Additionally, 45% of Washington working-age adults have a college degree, a larger share than in a majority of states.

Washington’s students tend to do better than their peers on national standardized tests. An estimated 46.9% of fourth graders and 39.3% of eighth graders in the state test proficient in math, each the seventh largest share nationwide. Additionally, 40.4% of fourth graders and 37.4% of eighth graders tested as proficient in reading, each among the larger shares in the country.