States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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11. Rhode Island
> High school graduation rate: 82.8% (20th lowest)
> Public school spending: $15,002 per pupil (10th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 32.0% (math) 34.8% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 34.1% (12th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 56.4% (11th highest)

While Rhode Island’s public school system ranks better than most in the country, it lags behind most others in New England and the Northeast in general. The state has considerable room for improvement in its kindergarten enrollment rate. Only 74.7% of eligible children are enrolled in kindergarten, one of the lowest such shares in the country and considerably smaller than the national kindergarten enrollment rate of 78.3%.

In other measures, such school funding, Rhode Island excels. Every child in the state lives in a district where per-pupil expenditures are at or above the national average. Only seven other states have similarly wide-spread high spending.

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12. Maine
> High school graduation rate: 87.0% (17th highest)
> Public school spending: $15,912 per pupil (7th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 35.4% (math) 35.6% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 30.1% (25th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 49.1% (21st lowest)

Though Maine’s schools outrank those in the vast majority of states, they trail the education systems of every other New England state. Some 35.6% of fourth graders in Maine are proficient in reading — a larger share than the 34.8% of fourth graders nationwide who are but a smaller share than any other state in the region. Fourth grade reading proficiency rates are at least 40% across the rest of New England. By eighth grade, Maine’s reading proficiency rate overtakes that of Rhode Island but still trails other New England states.

The regional shortcomings in Maine schools are not likely attributable to inadequate school funding. The state allocates 4.3% of tax revenue to education, nearly the largest such share among states and well above the 3.3% average nationwide. Partially as result, the per-pupil spending in the state of nearly $16,000 a year is more than in all but six other states.

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13. Wisconsin
> High school graduation rate: 88.2% (9th highest)
> Public school spending: $12,442 per pupil (24th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 40.8% (math) 39.0% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 29.5% (23rd lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 53.0% (20th highest)

Wisconsin’s education system ranks as 13th best in the country and second best in the Midwest. One of the most telling metrics for any school system is its high school graduation rate, and Wisconsin’s is better than most. Some 88.2% of public high school students in the state graduate with a diploma, compared to 84.1% of high school students nationwide.

Students in Wisconsin tend to perform better than those in most states even before their high school years. Some 45.4% of fourth graders and 40.8% of eighth graders are proficient in math, compared to, respectively, 39.4% and 32.1% nationwide. Similarly, 36.9% of fourth graders and 39.0% of eighth graders in Wisconsin are proficient in reading compared to, respectively, 34.8% and 32.7% nationwide.

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14. Virginia
> High school graduation rate: 86.7% (20th highest)
> Public school spending: $10,358 per pupil (15th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 37.6% (math) 35.9% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 38.1% (6th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 57.0% (9th highest)

After only Maryland, Virginia has the best school system in the South. Across several grade levels, students in Virginia outperform their counterparts in most other states by a number of measures. For example, among fourth graders in the state, 47.3% are proficient in math, and 42.9% are proficient in reading — well above the respective 39.4% and 34.8% shares nationwide. Additionally, there are more high scoring AP test results in the state — adjusted for the number of 11th and 12th graders — than in any other state except Maryland.

The success of students in Virginia is due in part to factors outside of the classroom. Students with college educated parents are more likely to succeed academically, and an estimated 59.0% of children in the state have at least one parent with a post-secondary education, the eighth largest share among states.

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15. North Dakota
> High school graduation rate: 87.5% (13th highest)
> Public school spending: $14,372 per pupil (12th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 39.2% (math) 33.7% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 29.6% (25th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 57.2% (8th highest)

Several indicators suggest students in North Dakota are more likely to succeed than students in most other states. Children raised in financially secure families with college-educated parents are more likely to succeed academically than those who are not. In North Dakota, 68.8% of children are in families with incomes at least double the poverty level income, a larger share than the 58.7% of children who do nationwide. Additionally, 64.0% of children in the state have at least one parent with a post-secondary degree, the third largest share among states. Such advantages outside of the classroom likely help boost the state’s graduation rate, which at 87.5% is better than in most states.

There is room for improvement in the state, however. Early childhood education can be critical to cognitive development, and North Dakota did not start funding pre-K programs until 2015. Partially as a result, only 31.1% of 3- and 4-year olds in the state attend pre-K, the second smallest share in the country.