The State of the States

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Quality Counts is based on the assumption that, in education, some things matter more than others. In particular, we have focused on efforts in the states to:

  • Raise student achievement;
  • Set standards for what their students should know and be able to do;
  • Prepare teachers who can teach to those standards;
  • Create schools and classrooms that are conducive to learning; and
  • Distribute money for schools equitably and adequately, and use it wisely.


Our state indicators are divided into five sections, one for achievement, and four additional categories that are important for a high-quality education system: standards and assessments, quality of teaching, school climate, and resources.

This year, as last, states earned a solid C for their efforts. But they are pushing ahead. Many states are now working to align their standards with their assessments, strengthen their accountability systems, introduce more options for K-12 students, and improve the preparation and licensure of new teachers.

We've also taken a number of steps to improve the indicators in Quality Counts.

The most important change is the addition of the first attempt to grade states on the rigor of their standards in English and mathematics, an analysis conducted for Quality Counts by the Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works to promote a curriculum strong in the basic subjects for all children. Next year, Quality Counts will also grade state standards in science and social studies.

Although states have expended a lot of time and energy setting standards for what students should know and be able to do, those standards will do little to enhance student achievement unless they are rigorous.

Achievement. All students achieving at high levels and engaged in high-level academic work.

Quality Counts '98 includes new data on how students in participating states performed on the 1996 mathematics and science exams of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Seven states--Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia-- made significant gains in the percentage of 4th graders who scored at the "proficient" level or above on the 1996 math test, compared with 1992. Texas, with a whopping 10-point gain, landed among the top five states.

Many of the states that improved the most on the national assessment also earned high grades on our measures of educational quality, such as North Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.

In addition, states made important strides in increasing the percentage of their 8th graders who take algebra, which jumped from about 19 percent in 1992--the last time NAEP collected such information--to 25 percent in 1996.

Finally, we have included a new column on the annual dropout rate in grades 9-12 for the 29 states that now report such data using a common definition developed by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Standards and Assessments. High standards for all children and assessments aligned with those standards.

This continued to be an incredibly active area for state policymaking. Seven more states completed the process of adopting standards in the core subjects in 1997, bringing the total to 38. Iowa is now the only state that is not working on statewide academic standards.

Moving beyond the question of whether a state has adopted standards, Quality Counts for the first time this year evaluates whether those standards in English and mathematic are rigorous, clear, and specific enough to form a core curriculum.

Thirty-eight states have adopted academic standards in all four core subjects, but only one received an A for the rigor of its English standards and one earned an A in math.

The Council for Basic Education devised the ratings for rigor especially for Quality Counts.

The CBE looked at whether the expectations for student learning are high by benchmarking each state’s math and English standards against the best documents available at the national and state levels.

In math, the CBE looked at the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and selected states, and then compared those with the standards in each state to see whether they required students to master the same content and skills.

In English/language arts, the CBE compared standards with those developed by the New Standards project and selected states. The CBE reviewed only state documents that had been adopted by state boards of education or were expected to gain approval by January 1998.

The judgments on clarity and specificity were provided by the American Federation of Teachers. To judge whether standards were clear and specific enough to form the basis for a common core curriculum for all students, the national teachers' union looked at whether the standards documents were detailed, comprehensive, and firmly rooted in the content of the subject area.

To obtain better and more recent data than have been available until now, Quality Counts also surveyed the assessment directors in all 50 states to find out how they will measure student performance in 1997-98 and in what subjects their tests are actually aligned with their standards.

Finally, we refined the rating of state accountability systems. This year, states received credit for having an accountability system only if it was based on indicators of student performance and not just on "process" measures such as how many textbooks are in the school library. Based on this revised definition, a total of 32 states now have accountability systems that provide rewards or sanctions for schools based, in part, on test scores.

Teaching Quality. Teachers with the knowledge and skills to teach to higher standards.

If students are to learn at high levels, they need teachers with the knowledge and skills to take them there. This year, Quality Counts focuses on states' efforts to set standards for licensing teachers that are linked to their standards for student achievement. We also looked at whether states are beginning to license teachers based on their demonstrated knowledge and skills, instead of their completion of education courses. Twenty states now have standards for what new teachers should know and be able to do. Sixteen states are working to create rigorous new tests for teachers through the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium. And eight states have developed their own assessments.

This year, we also include the number of teachers in each state who have been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the best available evaluation of experienced teachers. And we looked at whether states are providing time and money for teachers to participate in professional development once they are licensed.

School Climate. Schools organized and operated in a manner most conducive to teaching and learning.

Last year, most of our measures of school climate came from the federal government's Schools and Staffing Survey, which collects data from teachers, principals, and educational administrators nationwide. This is the best source of information on the characteristics of teachers and schools, but the survey is not being conducted again until 1999.

To provide new information, Quality Counts '98 include data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which collects information on selected characteristics of schools that participate in the federally sponsored test. Although we still look at such issues as class size and student engagement, the sources of the information are different and the numbers therefore are not comparable with last year's. On the plus side, we've added new data about parent involvement in schools, an important aspect of effective schooling.

This year, Quality Counts also grades states based on whether they allow charter schools--publicly financed schools that operate free from most state rules and regulations.

We decided to grade states on this question because research suggests that parents and students like charter schools and that such schools are spurring changes in public school systems.

We've also added a measure of whether states' charter school laws are strong or weak, developed by the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization that promote increased choices in education. Although four more states enacted charter school law in 1997, only two of those were rated strong pieces of legislation.

Resources. Are they adequate, distributed equitably, and focused on learning?

All the data on education spending have been updated by at least one year. But the numbers are still not as recent as we would like, given the rapidity with which states are changing their school finance formulas. The time lag stems from the time it takes for the federal government to collect data from more than 15,000 separate school districts and then verify those data and compile them nationally.

The grade for allocation of resources this year is based solely on the percent of education expenditures spent on instruction. Last year, we used two additional measures, one of which has not been updated and the other of which is no longer available.

Last year, Quality Counts used a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office to measure the equity of state’s educational funding. This year, Education Week conducted its own analysis of spending data from more than 14,000 districts. The data come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s F-33 Survey of School District Revenue and Spending. Our analysis attempts to factor out acceptable sources of variation in spending between districts by:

  • Adjusting each district's spending for regional differences in the cost of educational supplies and services using the National Center for Education Statistics' "cost of education index";
  • Giving more weight to poor and special education students, who cost more to educate and often receive supplemental funding; and
  • Excluding districts with fewer than 200 students because their small size leads to higher administrative costs per student.

How we graded the states: We graded states in four categories: standards and assessments, teaching, school climate, and resources. States are ranked on each table according to the overall grade each received in that category. In the case of ties, states are ranked alphabetically.

To arrive at the grades in each category, we grouped the indicator by topic. And we allowed each topic to count for a certain percentage of the grade. The columns within a given topic were usually given equal weight. Exceptions are noted in the sources and notes for each table.

For achievement, we ranked states according to the percentage of their students who reached the "proficient" level in math and science on the 1996 NAEP.

Vol. 17, Issue 17, Page 76-77

Published in Print: January 8, 1998, as The State of the States
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