States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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41. South Carolina
> High school graduation rate: 82.6% (18th lowest)
> Public school spending: $11,178 per pupil (20th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 25.7% (math) 27.8% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 27.2% (13th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 44.3% (6th lowest)

South Carolina allocates about 3.9% of taxable resources to education, more than most states and more than the 3.3% U.S. average. Despite education spending accounting for a larger than typical share of state resources, South Carolina is relatively poor, and as a result, the state spends less monetarily on education than most states at $11,178 per pupil per year — which is about $1,350 less than the average per-pupil spending across states.

As is often the case in states with relatively low per-pupil spending, South Carolina’s standardized test results have considerable room for improvement. For example, only about 1 in every 4 eighth graders in the state are proficient in math, one of the smallest shares in the country. Further, the state’s eighth grade math proficiency rate fell by 1.5 percentage points between 2003 and 2016, the largest decline of any state. Additionally, only 27.8% of eighth graders in South Carolina are proficient in reading, below the 32.7% U.S. average.

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42. Arkansas
> High school graduation rate: 87.0% (17th highest)
> Public school spending: $11,758 per pupil (24th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 24.9% (math) 26.8% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 22.4% (3rd lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 42.2% (2nd lowest)

Financial stability at home can greatly improve a child’s chance of success in the classroom. In Arkansas, only 47.7% of children live in families with income at least double the poverty level income, nearly the smallest share of any state in the country. Students with college-educated parents also have a greater chance for academic success, and only 39.3% of children in the state are raised by at least one parent with a post-secondary degree, below the 49.6% of children nationwide. Children in Arkansas may also be at a considerable disadvantage in the classroom. Only 12.9% of students attend districts with higher than per-pupil education spending than the national average.

Due to a confluence to these factors and more, Arkansas schools underperform in a number of important measures. Fourth and eighth graders in the state are less likely than most to be proficient in reading and math, and juniors and seniors in high school are less likely than most to score well on advanced placement tests.

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43. Alabama
> High school graduation rate: 87.1% (16th highest)
> Public school spending: $10,142 per pupil (14th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 17.2% (math) 25.6% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 24.7% (7th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 46.3% (13th lowest)

Alabama has one of the worst performing public school systems in the country. Only 26.1% of fourth graders and 17.2% of eighth graders in the state are proficient in math, each the smallest such share of any state.

For many, early childhood education can be tremendously beneficial for cognitive development, and in Alabama, relatively few children benefit from preschool programs. Only 42.9% of 3- and 4-year olds in the state are enrolled in pre-K, a smaller share than in most states and below the 47.7% average enrollment nationwide. Greater investment in education may help boost pre-K enrollment and standardized test scores in the state. Currently, only 1.9% of students in Alabama attends school districts with greater than average per-pupil education spending nationwide.

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44. Arizona
> High school graduation rate: 79.5% (8th lowest)
> Public school spending: $8,131 per pupil (2nd lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 34.8% (math) 31.1% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 28.9% (22nd lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 47.7% (16th lowest)

Children who are raised speaking English as a second language often face additional academic challenges at American public schools. In Arizona, only 79.4% of children are raised by parents who speak fluent English, one of the smallest shares of any state. This unique academic hurdle faced by a relatively large share of children may partially explain Arizona’s low graduation rate. Only 79.5% of high school students in the state graduate with a diploma compared to 84.1% of high school students nationwide.

The large share of ESL students and low graduation rate may suggest Arizona needs to invest more in its education system. The state spends only $8,131 per pupil per year on its public schools, the second lowest per-pupil education expenditure of any state in the country.

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45. Oklahoma
> High school graduation rate: 81.6% (15th lowest)
> Public school spending: $9,227 per pupil (7th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 22.9% (math) 29.4% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 25.2% (8th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 46.0% (11th lowest)

Mastering a subject matter at a young age can be critical to academic success down the road as certain subjects are cumulative, building on concepts learned in previous years. Math is one such subject, perhaps more so than any other. In Oklahoma, the share of fourth graders who are proficient in math increased by 10.7 percentage points between 2003 and 2015, nearly the largest improvement in the country. Despite the improvement, Oklahoma lags behind much of the country in math proficiency. Only 36.7% of fourth graders and 22.9% of eighth graders are proficient in math, below the comparable 39.4% and 32.1% U.S. shares.

Children raised by parents not fluent in English face a host of unique challenges academically, and parts of Oklahoma are making concerted efforts to help accommodate their ESL students. Free Spanish language classes became available to Oklahoma City Public School employees in early 2018. One of the program’s intended functions is to allow educators to better communicate with Spanish speaking parents.