States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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46. Louisiana
> High school graduation rate: 78.6% (5th lowest)
> Public school spending: $12,153 per pupil (25th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 17.9% (math) 23.3% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 23.4% (5th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 46.5% (14th lowest)

Children with college-educated parents are more likely to succeed academically than those raised by adults with only a high school education. In Louisiana, only 39.2% of children have at least one parent with a post-secondary degree, the smallest share of any state other than Nevada. Uneven funding throughout public schools in the state is an additional disadvantage for many students. Only 29.6% of Louisiana public school students attend districts with higher than average per pupil spending nationwide.

A confluence of these and other factors have led to some poor outcomes. For example, only 78.6% of high school students in the state graduate with a diploma, the fifth lowest graduation rate of any state. Additionally, only 17.9% of eighth graders in the state are proficient in math, the second smallest share of any state.

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47. Idaho
> High school graduation rate: 79.7% (11th lowest)
> Public school spending: $8,422 per pupil (3rd lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 34.0% (math) 37.2% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 27.6% (15th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 45.0% (8th lowest)

Idaho’s public school system is one of three western states to rank among the five worst in the country. A robust early childhood education program can have a positive impact on cognitive development. In Idaho, only 30.6% of 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in pre-K, the smallest share of any state. Currently, Idaho is one of only a handful of states without a publicly funded pre-K system, despite the fact that 76% of voters would support spending for such a program, according to a recent poll.

Should state lawmakers implement a pre-K program, it could help improve outcomes in the Idaho’s underperforming public schools. Currently, only 79.7% of high school students in the state graduate with a diploma, below the 84.1% U.S. high school graduation rate.

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48. Mississippi
> High school graduation rate: 82.3% (17th lowest)
> Public school spending: $9,885 per pupil (13th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 21.8% (math) 20.0% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 21.8% (2nd lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 41.4% (the lowest)

State education rankings do not tend to change much over time, and states with the best and worst schools tend to cluster in particular regions. The picture is not entirely static, however, and notable improvements occurred last year in states in various regions. Mississippi is one such state. The poorest state in the nation had some of the largest gains in fourth and eighth grade achievement on math and reading tests between 2003 and 2015. Still, Mississippi remains the state with nearly the worst schools in the nation.

Getting a good start early in the school system is a key foundation in a child’s academic career. The likelihood a child will benefit from this foundation depends a great deal on the education and income level of his or her family. Mississippi has the nation’s lowest median household income and highest poverty rate. Of children in the state, most live in families earning incomes less than twice the poverty level, and only 42.8% of children have at least one parent with a college degree, each among the lowest such percentages of all states.

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49. New Mexico
> High school graduation rate: 71.0% (the lowest)
> Public school spending: $10,768 per pupil (17th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 20.6% (math) 20.1% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 27.2% (13th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 43.2% (4th lowest)

Students who speak English as a second language face unique academic challenges in U.S. schools. In New Mexico, only 82.1% of children are raised by parents who speak fluent English, one of the smallest shares of any state. Many students likely face additional hurdles outside of the classroom as only 45.2% of children are raised by at least one parent with a college degree, the smallest share of any state.

Due to these challenges and others, New Mexico public schools report some of the worst outcomes in the country. Only about 1 in 5 eighth graders in the state are proficient in reading, and a similar share of students are proficient in math, each nearly the smallest proficiency rates of any state. Reading and math skills build on themselves year after year, and the low proficiency rates may partially explain the state’s low graduation rate. Only 71.0% of high schoolers in the state graduate with a diploma, the smallest share of any state and well below the 84.1% comparable U.S. rate.

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50. Nevada
> High school graduation rate: 73.6% (2nd lowest)
> Public school spending: $8,801 per pupil (5th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 26.1% (math) 27.4% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 23.5% (6th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 44.6% (7th lowest)

Children brought up speaking a language other than English often struggle academically in U.S., english-speaking classrooms. In Nevada, only 73.8% of children are raised by parents who speak fluent English, one of the smallest shares of any state. Integrating ESL students requires additional funding, and Nevada appears to be falling short. The state spends only 2.8% of its taxable resources on schools, well below the 3.3% average across all states. The small share of state expenses the state spends on education translates to a low monetary funding of only $8,801 per student per year, which is about $3,700 less than is typical nationwide.

The low funding in conjunction with poor academic outcomes make Nevada’s school system the worst of any state. Only 73.6% of high school students in the state graduate on time, the second-lowest graduation rate after New Mexico.