No 'Quality' Method for Rating States' Performance

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To the Editor:

We applaud Education Week for collecting education statistics about all 50 states. The latest of your annual Quality Counts reports (Jan. 8, 2009) is indeed an invaluable starting point. It goes a step too far, however, when it pools together disparate measures to arrive at each state’s overall score. This may not be problematic for education scholars, but policymakers might (and do) inaccurately treat a state’s overall rating as meaningful.

In fact, Quality Counts averages so much incommensurable data that we are reminded of the old joke of a beggar sitting on the streets of New York, with a sign reading, “Wars, 2; Legs Lost, 1; Wives Who Left Me, 2; Children, 3; Lost Jobs, 2. TOTAL: 10.”

First, the “school finance” measure rewards states for spending more money, whether or not that leads to actual results. The problem is most obvious when the “spending” measure is averaged with the measure for “K-12 achievement.” In theory, a high-spending state with low achievement—perhaps combining extravagance and incompetence—could get an overall score equal to that of a state with low spending and high achievement. But, all else being equal, the latter state obviously has a more efficient education system.

Second, the Chance-for-Success Index gives states higher grades for having fewer disadvantaged students. Unsurprisingly, Massachusetts does quite well on this measure, while Mississippi is near the bottom. This is certainly useful information, but it makes no sense that a state’s score here is averaged together with “K-12 achievement” to produce an overall score. (We were so baffled that we took the trouble of checking the scores of several states, just to be sure that this was what had been done.)

Thus, Quality Counts downgrades a state that produces A-level achievement for impoverished students, while upgrading another state simply for being blessed with privileged students. Imagine two states, equal on all measures but three. The first produces high achievement for poor kids using little money, while the second produces low achievement for rich kids using lots of the public’s resources. It is clear which system is doing better. Unfortunately, Quality Counts misses the point.

Stuart Buck
Research Associate
Gary Ritter
Endowed Chair in Education Policy
Department of Education Reform
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, Ark.

To the Editor:

Although I am a proud Marylander, I was amazed that such a credible publication as Education Week could rank my home state No. 1 in its Quality Counts 2009 report even though our students score 20th on national tests and SAT scores are declining—this despite that fact that we are the wealthiest state in the country and have nearly doubled education spending over the past five years. Clearly, there is a problem with Quality Counts’ methodology.

Achievement is only a minor part of the formula, and a state that spends a lot and with fewer economically disadvantaged students is ranked higher than a poorer state that attains the same results with less. Increased spending is not considered at all, even though expectations should be higher.

While no scoring system is perfect, Education Week needs to rethink a methodology that defies common sense and rewards inefficiency.

Matthew Joseph
Executive Director
Advocates for Children and Youth
Baltimore, Md.

Vol. 28, Issue 20, Page 25

Published in Print: February 4, 2009, as No 'Quality' Method for Rating States' Performance
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