States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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21. Indiana
> High school graduation rate: 86.8% (19th highest)
> Public school spending: $11,342 per pupil (21st lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 38.7% (math) 37.1% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 25.6% (9th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 48.5% (18th lowest)

Per-pupil school expenditures are lower in Indiana than in most states. The state spends the equivalent of $11,342 per student per year on education, below the average expenditure across all states of $12,526. Only 3.5% of students in Indiana live in districts where per-pupil spending matches or exceeds the national average spending.

However, better outcomes are never the result of higher spending alone, and by many measures, public school students in Indiana are excelling. Some 49.7% of fourth graders and 38.7% of eighth graders are proficient in math, well above the corresponding 39.4% and 32.1% shares of fourth and eighth graders nationwide.

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22. Ohio
> High school graduation rate: 83.5% (22nd lowest)
> Public school spending: $12,543 per pupil (23rd highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 35.4% (math) 35.5% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 27.5% (14th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 50.4% (24th lowest)

A strong early childhood education is generally good policy as cognitive stimulation at a young age can greatly increase an individual’s chances of success later in life. In Ohio, there is apparent room for improvement. Only 44.4% of 3- and 4-year olds in the state are enrolled in pre-K, compared the 47.7% enrollment rate nationwide. Additionally, only 75.4% of eligible children in the state attend kindergarten, below the nationwide share of 78.3%.

Despite the slightly lower than typical enrollment in early childhood education programs, public school students in Ohio outperform their peers nationwide in several measures. For example, fourth and eighth graders in the state are more likely to be proficient in reading and math than the typical fourth or eighth grader nationwide.

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23. Alaska
> High school graduation rate: 76.1% (4th lowest)
> Public school spending: $20,640 per pupil (2nd highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 31.8% (math) 31.4% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 29.6% (25th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 59.6% (5th highest)

Few measures are as indicative of a school system’s overall quality as the graduation rate — and Alaska’s is one of the lowest of any state. Only 76.1% of high school students graduate with a diploma compared to 84.1% of high school students nationwide. The low graduation rate is partially the result of students not mastering course material in critical years. Among fourth graders in the state, only 35.1% are proficient in math and 29.9% are proficient in reading, compared to 39.4% and 34.8% of fourth graders nationwide. Eighth graders in Alaska are also less likely to be proficient in reading and math compared to the typical eighth grader nationwide.

While Alaska’s per-pupil annual education spending of $20,640 is nearly the most of any state, much of it is necessitated by challenges unique to the state, namely its size and climate. As a result, the state’s education budget is not comparable to that of most states.

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24. Montana
> High school graduation rate: 85.6% (24th highest)
> Public school spending: $13,849 per pupil (15th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 38.9% (math) 36.9% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 31.0% (20th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 46.0% (11th lowest)

Children facing fewer risk factors, like living in poverty, are often at an advantage academically. In Montana, 59.4% of children live in families with an annual income at least double the poverty level income — roughly in line with the 58.7% share of children nationwide. Montana’s 85.6% high school graduation rate also closely mirrors the U.S. graduation rate of 84.1%.

In other ways, students in Montana are dissimilar from the typical American public school student. For example, fourth and eighth graders in the state are more likely than the typical student to be proficient in math and reading. However, 11th and 12th graders in Montana are less likely to have mastered advanced placement course material.

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25. Colorado
> High school graduation rate: 78.9% (6th lowest)
> Public school spending: $9,733 per pupil (10th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 36.9% (math) 38.2% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 39.9% (2nd highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 56.0% (12th highest)

Educational outcomes are mixed for Colorado public schools. For example, fourth and eighth graders in the state are more likely to be proficient in reading and math than students nationwide. Additionally, 11th and 12th graders in the state are more likely than the typical 11th or 12th grader to score well on advanced placement tests.

In other areas, Colorado schools have considerable room for improvement. Only 78.9% of high school students in the state graduate with a diploma, one of the lowest graduation rates of any state school system. States with better-funded school systems often report better outcomes than schools with smaller budgets, and Colorado spends the equivalent of only $9,733 per pupil per year, well below the average per pupil spending nationwide of $12,526.