States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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16. Illinois
> High school graduation rate: 85.5% (25th highest)
> Public school spending: $13,403 per pupil (17th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 32.2% (math) 35.1% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 34.0% (13th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 53.7% (15th highest)

Early education can be critical for a child’s social and cognitive development, and young children are more likely to be enrolled in a pre-K program in Illinois than the vast majority of other states. An estimated 55.8% of 3- and 4-year olds attend preschool, the sixth highest share of all states and well above the nationwide share of 47.7%.

The high early childhood education enrollment rates may partially explain slightly better outcomes of older Illinois students. For example, some 35.5% of fourth graders and 35.1% of eighth graders in the state are proficient in reading, compared to 34.8% of fourth graders and 32.7% of eighth graders nationwide.

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17. Iowa
> High school graduation rate: 91.3% (the highest)
> Public school spending: $13,102 per pupil (18th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 37.3% (math) 35.6% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 28.4% (17th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 53.2% (18th highest)

Graduation rates are one of the most important and often cited metrics for gauging the success of any school or school system. In Iowa, 91.3% of public high school students graduate with a diploma, the largest share of any state and considerably higher than the U.S. graduation rate of 84.1%. Additionally, fourth and eighth graders in the state are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than the typical American fourth or eighth grader.

There is room for improvement in other areas in Iowa schools, however. While students may graduate on time, relatively few are mastering higher level coursework. The state’s school system reports just 15 high scores on AP exams for every 100 11th and 12th graders, well below the U.S. average of 29 per 100 11th and 12th grade students.

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18. Delaware
> High school graduation rate: 85.5% (25th highest)
> Public school spending: $14,224 per pupil (13th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 29.5% (math) 31.1% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 31.0% (20th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 53.6% (16th highest)

Delaware allocates a smaller share of its budget to education than is typical. Only about 2.7% of the state’s taxable resources goes into its school system, one of the smallest shares among states and below the 3.3% average funding across states. Despite the lower school spending as a share of total state spending, most students in Delaware benefit from higher than average spending. Delaware schools spend the equivalent of $14,224 per student per year, more than most states and above the $12,526 average per pupil expenditure across the country.

Spending does not translate directly to results, however. Only 36.8% of fourth graders in the state and 29.5% of eighth graders are proficient in math, well below the comparable 39.4% and 32.1% shares nationwide.

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19. Nebraska
> High school graduation rate: 89.3% (4th highest)
> Public school spending: $14,028 per pupil (14th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 37.7% (math) 37.8% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 31.4% (19th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 51.6% (23rd highest)

Early childhood education can be critical for students’ cognitive development. In Nebraska, only 41.5% of 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in pre-K, and only 73.3% of eligible children are enrolled in kindergarten — each among the smallest shares of any state.

Early childhood education can increase the likelihood of success later in life, and despite the low early education enrollment rates, students in Nebraska are more likely than most to graduate from high school. Some 89.3% of high schoolers graduate with a diploma, the fourth highest graduation rate among states and well above the 84.1% U.S. graduation rate.

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20. Washington
> High school graduation rate: 79.7% (11th lowest)
> Public school spending: $10,395 per pupil (16th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 39.3% (math) 37.4% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 35.1% (10th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 56.9% (10th highest)

The typical Washington state household earns $67,106 a year, considerably more than the median household income nationwide of $57,617. While Washington’s tax base is stronger than that of most states, the state allocates a relatively small share of its funds to education. Washington uses only 2.8% of its taxable resources on education, below the 3.3% average across all states. Partially as a result, per-pupil spending in the state is lower than in most other states at about $10,395 per year, below the $12,526 national average per-pupil funding.

School budgets are only one factor in education outcomes, and despite the lower than typical spending, Washington schools perform well in several areas. For example, 46.9% of fourth graders and 37.4% of eighth graders are proficient in reading, the seventh and 12th highest shares among states.