Special Report

Grading the States: Securing Progress, Striving to Improve

By Amy M. Hightower — December 31, 2008 8 min read
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The 13th annual edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts continues to track state policies across key areas of education and maintains the cradle-to-career framework launched two years ago. With English-language learners as its special theme, Quality Counts 2009 for the first time details state policies to support this diverse group of students. It also provides a 50-state update on policies and conditions in three of the areas monitored by the report on an ongoing basis: the Chance-for-Success Index, transitions and alignment policies, and school finance.

Much of the state-by-state information comes from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center’s annual state policy survey. (For more information see “Methodology.”) Other indicators were gathered from a variety of sources, including the Common Core of Data and other National Center for Education Statistics databases, Consolidated State Performance Reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, George Washington University’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, state education budgets, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Changes to Grading, Survey

In past years, Quality Counts has provided an annual update of state policies in several key areas: standards, assessment, and accountability; transitions and alignment; and the teaching profession. The report’s framework also includes three categories of indicators based on original data analysis—Chance for Success, an index created by the EPE Research Center; K-12 achievement; and school finance.

Beginning this year, the survey moves to a modular design, which places topics for our state policy survey on an every-other-year rotation. That change was made, in part, to ease the burden on state respondents while still providing timely information on core education policy issues. This year’s questionnaire did not survey states on policies related to the teaching profession or standards, assessments, and accountability. Readers can expect those topics to reappear in the 2010 edition of Quality Counts.

The move to a biennial survey design also has prompted a change in the way states are graded in this year’s report. Specifically, in the print edition of Quality Counts 2009, the states will not receive summative grades that span multiple indicator categories. Instead, states are awarded separate grades in each of the three categories with updated data for this year’s report: the Chance-for-Success Index, policies related to transitions and alignment, and educational spending patterns and the equity of school finances. Those grades are based on a total of 35 indicators.

Chance for Success

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Chance for Success PDFExcel
School Finance PDFExcel
Transitions and Alignment PDFExcel

The Chance-for-Success Index combines information from 13 indicators that span childhood through adulthood. This index provides perspective on the role of education at each stage of a person’s life. One cluster of indicators captures the early-childhood years; another set features participation and performance in formal K-12 education; and a third examines adult educational attainment and workforce outcomes that are shaped by an individual’s earlier schooling.

Grades assigned to states in this section reflect a “best in class” rubric. The leading state on a particular indicator receives 100 points, while other states earn points in proportion to the gaps between themselves and the leader. We then averaged points across the 13 indicators to arrive at the final numerical score and letter grade.

Nation Earns C+ on Chance-for-Success Index

The EPE Research Center’s Chance-for-Success Index provides a unique cradle-to-career perspective on a state’s roles in helping young children get off to a good start, providing youths with a quality education during the schooling years, and offering adults significant opportunities for rewarding careers. While the nation as a whole receives a grade of C-plus, a state-by-state comparison reveals that an individual’s opportunities depend greatly on where he or she lives. For the second year in a row, Massachusetts ranks first in the nation, earning the only A for Quality Counts 2009. At the opposite extreme, four states received a D-plus, the same grades they were awarded last year.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2009

The nation as a whole earns a C-plus on the Chance-for-Success Index, the same grade as last year. For the second year in a row, Massachusetts leads the nation with the only A. It is followed closely by Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, each earning an A-minus. At the other end of the success continuum, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and New Mexico receive grades of D-plus. Last year’s report found a similar set of top- and bottom-ranking states. Only eight states saw increases or decreases in their letter grades from last year’s reporting, with the changes observed generally modest.

The Chance-for-Success Index captures the critical role that education plays at all stages of an individual’s life, with a particular focus on state-to-state differences in opportunities. While early foundations and the returns in the labor market from a quality education are important elements of success, we find that the school years consistently trump those factors. In every state, indicators associated with participation and performance in formal schooling constitute the largest source of points awarded in this category, and help explain much of the disparity between the highest- and lowest-ranked states.

Transitions and Alignment

This year, we again assessed state efforts to smooth transitions from one stage of the educational pipeline to the next—from early childhood, to K-12 schooling, to postsecondary education and the workforce. In this section, we track state progress on 14 specific indicators across three areas: early-childhood education, college readiness, and economy and workforce. States receive grades based on the number of the tracked policies that have been enacted.

For Quality Counts 2009, the nation earns a C for transitions and alignment policies, the same grade as last year. Three states—Maryland, New Mexico, and West Virginia—received an A for implementing at least 12 of the policies monitored in this category. In all, nearly one-fifth of states have enacted at least 10 of the 14 policies tracked in this year’s survey. Conversely, Idaho, Kansas, and South Dakota have implemented just three such policies, and Nebraska only two. Utah showed the most improvement since last year, climbing from an F in 2008 to a C-minus in 2009. Oregon increased from a D to a C-plus.

This year’s survey finds that states are making great strides in early education. Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, only North Dakota lacks early-learning standards aligned with elementary-grade academic standards. For the first time, every state and the District of Columbia has aligned kindergarten learning expectations with elementary and secondary standards.

Farther along the education pipeline, we find that, compared with those that have early education standards, fewer states have college-readiness policies, which help ensure that high school graduates are prepared for the rigors of a postsecondary curricula. Twenty states have a definition of college readiness. But only three—New York, Rhode Island, and Texas—require all high school students to take a college-preparatory curriculum in order to earn a high school diploma. Sixteen additional states plan to mandate a college-preparatory curriculum in the coming years.

States have been more active in forming policies to help ensure high school graduates are prepared to successfully enter the workforce. Thirty-eight states have established curricular pathways in high school that lead toward an industry-recognized certificate or license, which provides students with the credentials necessary to begin a trade right out of school. Twenty-one states have implemented all four of the economy and workforce policies tracked in this year’s survey.

School Finance

The final section of our state-of-the-states update investigates school finance. The indicators on which states are graded capture two dimensions of educational finance: school spending patterns and the equitable distribution of resources within a state. It should be noted that we do not examine unadjusted spending figures. Rather, we focus on dollars spent relative to some relevant criterion or benchmark, such as regional differences in costs, the national average for per-pupil expenditures, or the total size of a state’s budget.

This year’s analysis marks an important change in the way the annual report accounts for regional differences in the costs of education. Traditionally, the EPE Research Center has employed the National Center for Education Statistics’ Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI). For the 2009 report, we have adopted NCES’s Comparable Wage Index (CWI), a recently developed measure that is based on more contemporary data and offers the prospect of annual updates in the future. Although the GCEI accounts for a wide variety of both personnel and nonpersonnel costs, it is referenced to the 1993-94 school year and may no longer reflect current spending patterns. The CWI uses more up-to-date information from 2005 to provide a type of cost-of-living adjustment based on regional variations in salaries. Although the CWI directly considers only one source of educational expense (personnel), payroll costs constitute more than three-quarters of school district expenditures.

Overall, the nation’s grade for school finance is a C-plus. Rhode Island and Wyoming lead the nation, both earning grades of A-minus. At the other end of the spectrum, Idaho, Louisiana, and Nevada each earned a grade of D. No state ranks at the top of the nation for both aspects of finance examined in Quality Counts 2009. In fact, states with high scores for equity tend to fare less well on measures of spending.

Broadly speaking, equity indicators still show wide disparities across districts in many states. For example, our Restricted Range indicator measures the difference in per-pupil expenditures between school districts at the 95th and 5th percentiles of spending within individual states, adjusted for regional cost differences and student needs. Smaller gaps denote more equitable spending across the districts in a state. Our analysis found a $12,307 gap between those high- and low-spending districts in Alaska in the 2005-06 school year, the largest difference in the nation. New Jersey had the second-largest gap—$10,838—and West Virginia displayed the smallest gap at $1,895.

In the average state, per-pupil expenditures in 2005-06 were $9,963, after adjusting for regional cost differences. More than $9,000 separates the top- and bottom-spending states—Vermont at $15,139 and Utah at $5,964. Nearly half the states spent more than $10,000 per pupil.


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