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School & District Management Opinion

K-12 Leaders & Laggards Circa 2014: How the States Are Doing

By Rick Hess — September 11, 2014 5 min read
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Today the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is releasing its 2014 report Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on K-12 Educational Effectiveness. I once again had the pleasure of partnering with the Chamber on this work, serving as an advisor while my talented colleague Mike McShane served as lead researcher. We’ll be discussing the results today at the Chamber in Washington, DC. (You can find more information here.) This is the third time I’ve teamed up with the Chamber to do a K-12 Leaders & Laggards report; the first time was in 2007 and the second in 2009 (we’ve also done a report on higher ed). One cool feature this time around is the ability to compare the 2014 findings to those from 2007, making it possible to see what’s changed (and what hasn’t) when it comes to academic outcomes. We’ve revisited most of the key measures we tackled previously, while also adding new metrics that look at international competitiveness, technology, and how states are handling their pensions.

Leaders & Laggards grades each state on how it’s doing in 11 areas, using an A to F scale. The 11 graded areas include performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP performance for low-income and minority students, return on investment, postsecondary and workforce readiness, “truth in advertising,” the teacher workforce, return on investment, and parental options, among others. (The report also calculates two additional “improvement” grades based on the progress that states made between 2007 and 2014 on overall NAEP achievement and on NAEP achievement for low-income and minority students.) The report is, very consciously, a hybrid of new measures that we’ve collected and others where we’ve simply assembled the terrific work already done by others.

No one who follows education should be all that surprised to see that Massachusetts is once again the star of the class. Massachusetts earned 6 A’s and 3 B’s in the 11 categories, while also posting an A and a B when it came to improvement. Other states that topped the 2014 honor roll included Maryland and Minnesota, with 5 A’s each; and Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont, with 4 A’s each.

States generally did better across the board than they had done in 2007 and 2009, though their progress was uneven and far from satisfactory. After all, even the highest-performing states on the 2013 NAEP--Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota--only had about half of their students at the “proficient” level when we combined the performance of fourth and eighth graders in reading and math. The lowest performers--Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia--only had about a quarter of their students achieving proficiency. Now, there are sensible questions about whether NAEP “proficiency” may be too ambitious to be a universal expectation, but my takeaway from these results is that we still have a long way to go--even in states that are doing relatively well.

I think my favorite new metric is the one that examines successful Advanced Placement completion by state. The top states had between one-fourth and one-third of their students successfully passing an AP exam. In Maryland, for instance, 30% of students graduated having passed an AP exam. In Connecticut, the figure was 29%. In Virginia and Massachusetts, it was 28%. This means that a lot of students in those states have successfully completed college-level work, giving them a feel for what it entails and the confidence that they can do it. Nationally, the average was about 20%. But in Louisiana, my old stomping grounds, just 5% of students graduated having passed an AP exam, and in Mississippi, the figure was only 4%.

When you break down the AP results into areas of import, like world languages or STEM, the results are pretty disheartening. When it came to successfully passing AP exams in world languages, California led the pack. Even so, just 9% of graduating students had passed an AP foreign language test. The results elsewhere are positively dismal. North Dakota, the lowest-performing state, had a pass rate of just 0.04% (or 1 in 2,500 students). The STEM results aren’t much better: The best-performing state was Massachusetts, and even there, just 16% of graduating students had passed an AP STEM exam. In Mississippi, the lowest-performing state, just 1.2% of graduating students had done so.

A long-running headache for parents and voters is that there aren’t really any “truth in advertising” laws concerning school performance. States that adopt easy tests or a low bar can make themselves look good, while states that set a high bar wind up looking bad. This is a perverse incentive, and we’ve always tried to help offer a corrective in Leaders & Laggards. So, once again, we include a “truth in advertising” metric. It uses data from Education Next (full disclosure: I’m an executive editor) to see how the results that states report to parents compare with those that NAEP reports. The four worst offenders on the “truth in advertising” metric were Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Michigan. These states had the biggest disparities between how their students performed on state tests and how students fared on NAEP, and thus were the guiltiest of giving parents an inflated sense of how well students performed in reading and math. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Tennessee did the best job of giving parents an honest account of how students are doing.

One other point I’ll flag. Unfunded pension liabilities pose an enormous threat to states’ ability to fund public services, including education. Unfortunately, states like Connecticut, Kentucky, and Illinois have contributed less than half of what they should have to keep these funds solvent, and many other states have failed to make the necessary catch-up payments. States such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, and South Dakota, on the contrary, have funded at necessary levels, positioning them to meet their obligations and avoid having to cannibalize classroom spending downstream.

There’s a lot there, and I’ve only scratched the surface. It’s well worth taking a look for yourself.

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