Special Report

Equity in Achievement, Funding Are Hurdles for States Amid Progress

By Sterling C. Lloyd — January 03, 2014 8 min read
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In 1997, Education Week first published Quality Counts as a report card assessing state progress in adopting policy measures in several key areas. The annual report offered a way for policymakers to track central tenets of standards-based reform, a movement continuing to come into its own as a major force in K-12 education.

Since that time, states—spurred in part by the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act—have enacted many of that movement’s building blocks related to standards, testing, and accountability. In effect, much of what Quality Counts was originally designed to monitor has become the educational law-of-the-land across much of the country.

Stepping Back

After more than a decade and a half of grading states’ policymaking efforts, the time seems right to step back and reconsider the framework that guides Quality Counts, in light of the constantly evolving federal and state policy contexts. With such significant new developments as the Common Core State Standards and Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers reshaping the policy landscape, the Education Week Research Center is taking the opportunity to review its indicators and grading framework to ensure that the report continues to provide the most relevant information for educators and policymakers.

As a result, this year’s report does not present data on its traditional policy categories, which include standards, assessments, and accountability, along with the teaching profession. Quality Counts 2014 does not grade the states in those areas.

Throughout the report’s history, the Education Week Research Center has updated and revised Quality Counts in response to emergent trends in the education environment and invaluable advice from technical advisers, policymakers, and other concerned stakeholders. In 2008, for instance, the research center introduced two new performance-based categories—the Chance for Success Index and the K-12 Achievement Index—as part of a revamped grading framework.

State Grading Data Download
Chance for SuccessPDF
K-12 AchievementPDF
School FinancePDF

As the research center works to re-evaluate the report’s state policy indicators, it will continue to publish results for those two outcome-oriented categories, as well as its original analysis of school finance.

The online version of Quality Counts 2014 provides updated state scores and letter grades for chance for success, K-12 achievement, and school finance. Because of delays stemming from the recent federal government shutdown, 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey had not been released as of the report’s print publication deadline. This year’s print report does not include results for the Chance for Success Index, which draws heavily on data from the Census survey.

K-12 Achievement

The K-12 Achievement Index assesses state performance against a broad set of 18 separate indicators or criteria, including results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, high school graduation rates, and scores on Advanced Placement exams. Unlike more-limited score cards on student achievement, the index analyzes results across three crucial dimensions: current state performance, improvements over time, and equity as measured by poverty-based achievement gaps. As a result, states are rewarded for raising scores over time and narrowing achievement gaps, as well as for posting high rankings for current levels of performance.

This category is scored using a best-in-class approach, in which each state’s performance on a given indicator is evaluated relative to the nation’s top-ranked state on that same measure. The leading state earns 100 points for that benchmark; the remaining states receive points in proportion to their distance from the national leader.

The full K-12 Achievement Index combines results across all 18 distinct criteria and is scored on a 100-point scale, where an ideal score of 100 would be awarded to a state that ranked first in the nation on every indicator.

This year, for K-12 achievement, the nation as a whole posts a score of 70.2 and earns a grade of C-minus. This marks a slight improvement from 69.7 in Quality Counts 2012, the last time the research center conducted an analysis in this category.

Gap-Closing Remains a Challenge


Despite notable strides in raising overall student achievement scores in the past decade, most states have struggled to improve performance in an equitable manner for students of all socioeconomic levels.

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2014

At the other end of the spectrum, the District of Columbia and Mississippi receive grades of F, with four additional states each earning a D-minus. In all, 32 states earn grades in the D to C-minus range, with half the states receiving marks of D-plus or lower. Scores improved in 27 states and the District of Columbia from 2012 to 2014, with 16 of those states gaining a full point or more on the index.

The past two years have been a period of broad-based improvements in all the achievement outcomes tracked by the index. The United States as a whole and the majority of states have posted gains on NAEP reading and math scores, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement tests. In fact, the percent of students earning high scores on AP exams has increased in every state since the index was last reported in 2012. Notable among achievement trends is a very strong showing by the District of Columbia, which showed improvements across all performance outcomes and ranked near the top of the nation for gains in mathematics and reading on NAEP from 2011 to 2013.

Amid those positive developments, an examination of achievement equity results suggests that recent improvements are not being enjoyed equally by poor and more-affluent students. The size of the poverty gaps in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math widened for the nation and most states between 2011 and 2013. In two-thirds of the states, those divides expanded over the past decade, with the widening of the poverty gap most pronounced in the District of Columbia.

As the multidimensional nature of the K-12 Achievement Index makes clear, states that excel on some aspects of student achievement often struggle on others.

Chance for Success

The Chance for Success Index provides a unique perspective on the link between education and beneficial outcomes at each stage of a person’s life. The index combines information from 13 indicators that span childhood through adulthood to capture three broad life stages: the early-childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood.

New results for the Chance for Success Index show that the nation has started regaining some traction in promoting an environment that supports positive learning experiences for youths and affords opportunities for adults to capitalize on a good education. Scores on the index increased a half-point from last year and show signs of returning to pre-recession levels, although income growth remains weak across much of the country.

This year, the United States as a whole receives a C-plus on Chance for Success. Massachusetts remains at the top of the national rankings for the seventh year running, earning the only A-minus. It is followed closely by Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and North Dakota, each posting grades of B-plus. Mississippi and New Mexico receive grades of D-plus, while Nevada scores lowest with a D.

Since 2013, scores have shown some improvement in 32 states, with half of those states gaining at least a full point on the index’s 100-point scale. The most rapid improvements are found for the District of Columbia, Iowa, and Tennessee, each of which gained more than two points.

School Finance

The research center’s analysis of school finance trends consists of eight indicators. Half the measures examine school spending patterns, with expenditures adjusted for regional cost differences or otherwise evaluated relative to some relevant benchmark, such as the national average. The other four indicators use varying approaches to measure the distribution of funding across a state’s districts and, taken together, offer a broad-based view of equity in K-12 school funding.

Like the K-12 Achievement Index, scores for school finance are calculated using a best-in-class approach. The finance indicators in Quality Counts 2014 are based on data from 2011, the most recent year available.

This year, the United States earns a C for school finance, with the national grade virtually unchanged from a year ago. For the sixth year in a row, Wyoming ranks first and posts an A-minus. The states claiming the next three slots—West Virginia, New York, and Connecticut—earn grades of B-plus. At the other end of the rankings, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah receive grades of D, and Idaho earns a D-minus.

Overall, 12 states improved, with New Hampshire, North Carolina, and North Dakota making the biggest gains since last year, each picking up at least 3 points and half a letter grade. Scores declined in 35 states, five of which—Indiana, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming—lost more than 2 points apiece. Finance grades are not issued for the District of Columbia and Hawaii since both are single-district jurisdictions.

The national average for per-pupil expenditures stands at $11,864, and the average state spends 3.6 percent of its taxable resources on education, with little change since last year. Wyoming has the highest per-pupil spending in the nation: $19,534 after adjusting for regional cost differences. Funding levels are lowest in Utah, at $6,905 per student—only about one-third of what Wyoming spends. A funding gap of $12,629 separates the top- and bottom-spending states.

Funding Equity

The research center’s equity analysis reveals that many states continue to have large disparities in education funding across districts. For instance, the Restricted Range indicator shows that the average difference in per-pupil-spending levels for school systems at the 95th and 5th percentiles of a state’s expenditure distribution is $4,566 and ranges from $13,023 in Alaska to $1,997 in Utah.

According to results for the Wealth Neutrality indicator, just seven states—Alaska, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming—provide higher funding for poorer districts than for their wealthier peers.

A further breakdown of results shows that, on average, states’ scores are substantially higher on the equity metrics examined in Quality Counts 2014 than on the spending indicators.

But few states post strong performances in both those areas, and states often rank on the opposite ends of the continuum for spending and equity. For example, Utah ranks fourth nationally in funding equity, but last when it comes to spending. By contrast, Alaska finishes last for equity, but sixth on spending.


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