States With the Best (and Worst) Schools

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36. Tennessee
> High school graduation rate: 88.5% (8th highest)
> Public school spending: $9,605 per pupil (9th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 29.2% (math) 32.8% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 26.1% (10th lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 45.4% (9th lowest)

Robust early childhood education programs in a state can help set students up for academic success in later years. In Tennessee, only 37.8% of 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in pre-K, one of the smallest shares of any state and about 10 percentage points below the comparable U.S. enrollment figure. Additionally, only 74.9% of eligible children in the state are enrolled in kindergarten, below the 78.3% U.S. figure.

Greater enrollment in early childhood education programs may help boost poor academic achievement in the state. Currently, fourth graders in the state are less likely to be proficient in reading than the typical fourth grader nationwide, and eighth graders in Tennessee are less likely to be proficient in math.

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37. West Virginia
> High school graduation rate: 89.8% (3rd highest)
> Public school spending: $12,993 per pupil (20th highest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 20.5% (math) 27.2% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 20.8% (the lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 43.8% (5th lowest)

Children from financially insecure families can be at a considerable disadvantage academically. West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country, and only 49.7% of children in the state are raised in families with income at least twice the poverty level income. In comparison, 58.7% of children nationwide live in relatively financially stable families.

In some measures of academic achievement, West Virginia schools are lagging. For example, fourth and eighth graders in the state are less likely than those in most other states to be proficient in math and reading, and 11th and 12th graders are less likely to master advanced placement course material. Still, some 89.8% of high schoolers in the state graduate with a diploma, the third highest graduation rate of any state.

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38. South Dakota
> High school graduation rate: 83.9% (23rd lowest)
> Public school spending: $11,133 per pupil (19th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 33.7% (math) 34.4% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 28.9% (22nd lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 50.7% (25th lowest)

South Dakota’s public school system is relatively poorly funded. The state allocates only 2.6% of its total annual budget to education, well below the 3.3% average expenditure across all states. Partially as a result, only about 11.2% of students in the state attend districts with higher than the national average per pupil spending. School budgets are only one factor that can impact academic success, and fourth and eighth graders are about as likely to be proficient in math and reading as their peers nationwide. High schoolers in the state are also about as likely to graduate with a diploma compared to the typical American high school student.

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39. North Carolina
> High school graduation rate: 85.9% (22nd highest)
> Public school spending: $9,217 per pupil (6th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 32.6% (math) 30.4% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 30.4% (24th highest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 46.2% (12th lowest)

A well-funded school system can be tremendously beneficial for its students, and North Carolina has one of the most poorly funded school systems in the country. The state allocates only 2.3% of its tax revenues to education spending, the smallest share of any state. Monetarily, North Carolina spends $9,217 per student per year, one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures of any state and about $3,300 less than the U.S. average.

Better-funded schools often report better academic outcomes. Despite the lower spending, some 44.4% of fourth graders and 32.6% of eighth graders in the state are proficient in math, slightly higher than the respective 39.4% and 32.1% shares nationwide. Still, while fourth grade math proficiency rates are higher than typical, eighth graders in North Carolina are less likely to be proficient in reading than students in most other states.

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40. Texas
> High school graduation rate: 89.1% (5th highest)
> Public school spending: $8,485 per pupil (4th lowest)
> 8th grade NAEP proficiency: 32.3% (math) 28.0% (reading)
> Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 28.9% (22nd lowest)
> Adults 25-64 with incomes at or above national median: 49.3% (22nd lowest)

Students in financially stable households with college-educated parents can be at a considerable advantage academically. In Texas, only 52.9% of children are raised in households with incomes at least double the poverty level income, a smaller share than the 58.7% of children nationwide. Additionally, only 40.8% of children are raised by at least one parent with a college degree, well below the 49.6% of children nationwide.

Another disadvantage for public school students in Texas is low funding. The state’s education spending works out to only about $8,485 per student per year, one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures of any state and about $4,000 less than the U.S. average. Despite some disadvantages, some 89.1% of high schoolers in Texas graduate with a diploma, well above the 84.1% U.S. graduation rate.