Special Report
School & District Management

A Fresh Approach to Ranking States on Education

By EdWeek Research Center — January 03, 2015 6 min read

The 19th annual edition of Education Week‘s Quality Counts takes a fresh approach to the state report card.

In 2014, Quality Counts took a hiatus from issuing summative grades in order to step back and reassess the education policy landscape. This year those grades return in a newer, leaner form that focuses on outcomes rather than on policy and processes.

The “State of the States” grading incorporates three key indices developed by the Education Week Research Center. The Chance-for-Success Index provides a cradle-to-career perspective on the role that education plays in promoting positive outcomes throughout a person’s life. The school finance analysis assesses spending patterns and equity. Both categories have been updated for this year’s report. The K-12 Achievement Index, last updated in 2014, rates states on current academic performance, change over time, and poverty-based gaps.

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Grading SummaryPDF
Chance for SuccessPDF
School FinancePDF

To score the states in all three of these areas, the center employs a “best-in-class” approach. For each indicator in a given category, the top state receives 100 points. All other states are awarded points based on their performance relative to that state. Category scores are calculated as the average of scores across indicators. A state’s overall summative score is the average of the three graded categories.

For Quality Counts 2015, the nation as a whole receives an overall grade of C and a score of 74.3 out of 100. That marks a decline down from a C-plus and a 76.9 in 2013, when summative grades were last issued. Just as a student’s first-semester grade may be based on a different mixture of assignments and exams than the second-semester grade, the 2015 summative scores are based on a different framework than those issued in 2013 so they are not necessarily comparable.

Massachusetts finishes first this year with a grade of B and a score of 86.2. A perennial high performer, the state has consistently finished among the nation’s top five. Also earning grades of B this year are New Jersey (with a score of 85.5), 2013 front-runner Maryland (with 85.2), and Vermont (83.0). Wyoming (B-minus, 80.6) makes its first appearance in the top 10 since Quality Counts started issuing summative grades.

Mississippi ranks last this year, with a grade of D and score of 64.2. Also earning grades of D are New Mexico (65.5) and Nevada (65.0). Overall, the majority of states (31) can be found toward the middle of the “curve,” earning grades from C-minus to C-plus.

Chance for Success

The 13 indicators that comprise the Chance-for-Success Index capture lifelong learning opportunities starting with early childhood, and progressing though the K-12 system to educational and workforce outcomes in adulthood.

The nation’s C-plus grade remains unchanged from last year, although its numeric score rose very slightly, from 77.3 to 77.5 out of 100. Results improved slightly on indicators related to early educational foundations in childhood, but declined modestly in postsecondary participation.

For the eighth consecutive year, Massachusetts aces this indicator, receiving an A-minus with a score of 91.9. New Hampshire is the only other state earning an A-minus this year. Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and North Dakota each receive a B-plus. The states with the highest overall grades—Massachusetts and New Hampshire—are near the top of national rankings on most of the index’s measures.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi and New Mexico receive grades of D-plus, and Nevada receives a D. These three states also received the nation’s lowest Chance-for-Success grades in 2014.

A total of 30 states increased their scores over last year’s marks. Of those 30, seven gained at least a full point on the grading scale. Hawaii and Wyoming saw their results improve the most, with gains of 2.7 and 2.6 points, respectively. Delaware and West Virginia had the largest declines, both seeing their scores drop by 1.3 points.

School Finance

The school finance analysis examines two aspects of school funding. Half of the measures focus on school spending patterns, while the rest explore the distribution of education dollars within each state.

When assessing education expenditures, the Education Week Research Center does not base the evaluation on raw dollars spent. Rather, the center evaluates spending in relation to several benchmarks, such as regional cost differences and the national average for per-pupil expenditures. The finance indicators in Quality Counts 2015 are based on data from the 2012 school year, the most recent available.

The overall state of school finance holds steady this year. The nation’s grade of C has remained virtually unchanged over the past several years. Wyoming ranks first in the nation for the seventh straight year but slips slightly, to a B-plus from its previous A-minus grade. While no state receives an A, seven states recorded grades of B-plus, compared with only three in 2014.

A total of 21 states hover in the C-minus to C-plus range, and 15 states earn a D-plus or lower. Idaho is the lone state to record an F in school finance. The District of Columbia and Hawaii do not receive finance grades because they are single-district jurisdictions.

The U.S. average for per-pupil spending stands at $11,735 after adjusting for regional cost differences. Vermont spends the most with $18,882 per student, while last-ranking Utah spends roughly one-third that amount with $6,688 per student.

States typically perform better on the equity aspect of the analysis, but disparities remain when it comes to patterns of spending within states. The Wealth Neutrality score identifies just one state, Alaska, that provides higher funding for property-poor districts than for their wealthier peers. However, Alaska also ranks last on the Restricted Range indicator, which measures the difference in per-pupil spending among districts at the 95th and 5th expenditure percentiles.

Few states perform strongly on both the equity and spending aspects of finance. For instance, Florida ranks second in the nation on equity but only 46th on school spending. Similarly, Vermont takes the number one spot in spending, but ranks 45th on equity.

K-12 Achievement

The K-12 Achievement Index, which counts for one-third of this year’s summative grade, assesses states’ performance on 18 indicators. These results were published in Quality Counts 2014, and remain unchanged because they rely heavily on National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which are released every other year. Other ingredients of this index include high school graduation rates and Advanced Placement exam scores. To score well on this index, a state must demonstrate strong academic performance, combined with improvements over time and progress toward narrowing the achievement gap.

The nation overall earned a grade of C-minus with a score of 70.2, showing a small improvement from its score of 69.7 in Quality Counts 2012. Massachusetts was the top performing state with a B and score of 83.7. Maryland, which also earned a B, was followed by New Jersey, which posted a B-minus. These three states were the only jurisdictions to score above the C range. In fact, 24 states and the District of Columbia earned a D-plus or lower. However, overall scores in 27 states and the District of Columbia did improve from 2012 to 2014.

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