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Quality Counts 2021: Educational Opportunities and Performance in the United States

By EdWeek Research Center — January 19, 2021 | Updated: September 01, 2021 5 min read
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Based on a comprehensive analysis of data, the Quality Counts report card answers a key question: Where does my state rank for educational opportunities and performance?

States are graded and ranked in three categories: Chance for Success (January), School Finance (June), and K-12 Achievement (September). A state’s overall grade, published in September, is the average of its scores on the three separate indices tracked for the report card.

National Overview

This year, the nation earns an overall score of 76.2 out of 100 points and a grade of C.

Diving into the findings for the three graded indices, the nation earns a B-minus in the Chance-for-Success category. The average state receives a grade of C in both School Finance and K-12 Achievement. More details on results in these categories are reported below.

Chance for Success: Gauging Educational Opportunities

The EdWeek Research Center developed the Chance-for-Success Index to better understand the role that education plays in promoting positive outcomes across an individual’s lifetime. Based on an original state-by-state analysis, this index combines information from 13 indicators that span a person’s life from cradle to career. Those indicators fall into three sub-sections: early foundations, school years, and adult outcomes.

The index evaluates each state using a range of measuring sticks, including:

  • How educated are parents?
  • What share of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool?
  • Are K-12 students proficient in reading and math?
  • What’s the high school graduation rate?
  • What percentage of adults have steady employment?

Overall, the top state on the Chance-for-Success Index is Massachusetts, with a score of 91.6 and a letter grade of A-minus. At the other end of the spectrum, New Mexico receives the lowest score at 69.0, a D-plus.

Early Foundations: Are Kids Getting Off to a Good Start?

For early foundations, which examines factors that help children get off to a good start, New Hampshire earns the highest mark at 97.7 or a grade of A. New Mexico is the lowest-scoring state, with a score of 75.6 and a grade of C.

School Years: How Are Students Faring in School?

Massachusetts tops the nation for the school years, a sub-category focusing on metrics related to pre-K enrollment through postsecondary participation. It posts a score of 93.5, which corresponds to a grade of A. By comparison, New Mexico gets the lowest score at 64.8, a D.

Adult Outcomes: Are Adults Finding Opportunities for Success?

In the area of adult outcomes, based on postsecondary educational attainment and workforce indicators, the District of Columbia earns the highest score of 99.7 or an A. By contrast, Mississippi receives the lowest mark, a 66.2 or a D.

School Finance: Grading the Nation on Spending and Equity

The school finance analysis examines two critical aspects of school spending. Of the eight indicators in this category, four assess school spending patterns, while the remaining metrics gauge equity in the distribution of funding across the districts within each state.

Overall, the top state in school finance is New Jersey, with a score of 91.2 and a letter grade of A-minus. At the other end of the spectrum, Nevada receives the lowest score at 62.4, a D-minus.

Spending: How Much Are States Devoting to Education?

The spending metrics shed light on major questions, such as:

  • What does the state spend per-pupil when adjusted for regional cost differences?
  • What percent of students are in districts with per-pupil spending at or above the U.S. average?
  • What share of total taxable resources are spent on education?

Across the spending indicators, New Jersey finishes first with an A and a score of 93.5. Utah receives the lowest score at 40.3, an F.

Equity: How Are Funds Distributed Across Districts?

Topics covered by the equity analysis include:

  • To what degree does funding for property-poor districts differ from that of their wealthier counterparts?
  • How different are the spending levels of the highest- and lowest-spending districts?

On the equity measures, Maryland’s score of 93.9 tops the nation and results in an A. Alaska records a C and a score of 74.1, the lowest in the nation.

The District of Columbia and Hawaii do not receive finance grades because they are single-district jurisdictions.

K-12 Achievement

The K-12 Achievement Index examines 18 distinct achievement measures related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates, and the results of Advanced Placement exams. The index assigns equal weight to current levels of performance and changes over time. It also places an emphasis on equity, by examining both poverty-based achievement gaps and progress in closing those gaps.

Indicators in the index can be broken down into three sub-categories: status, change, and equity.

The index provides information on key questions, such as:

  • What percentage of 4th and 8th graders are proficient in reading and math?
  • How has student achievement changed over time?
  • How large are achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers? Have those gaps narrowed over time?

Status: How Are Students Performing Today?

Measures in the status sub-category evaluate a state’s current performance. The average state earns a C-minus. On the status measures, Massachusetts’ score of 96.2 tops the nation and results in an A. New Mexico records an F and a score of 47.6, the lowest in the nation.

Change: Has State Achievement Improved Over Time?

The change sub-category examines a state’s improvement over time. In this area, the national average is a D-plus. The District of Columbia, the national leader, posts an A and a score of 92.8. Iowa, with a score of 57.0 and a letter grade of F, places last in the nation.

Equity: How Large Are Poverty-Based Achievement Gaps?

In the equity sub-section, states are graded based on achievement gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers. The nation as a whole receives a B-minus. Oklahoma finishes as the national leader on those poverty-gap measures. Its score stands at 91.8, which corresponds to a grade of A-minus. On the other end of the scale, the District of Columbia receives a 50.0 and an F, the lowest nationally.

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