Special Report

In National Ranking of School Systems, a New State Is On Top

Nation earns a grade of C amid mixed state showing
By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — September 03, 2019 9 min read
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New Jersey takes the top spot in the newly released “Quality Counts 2019,” the 23rd annual report card of state education systems issued by the Education Week Research Center, while the nation as a whole once again earns a C grade despite some jockeying for position among individual states.

The report, the third of three installments, synthesizes 39 indicators that capture a range of school finance, academic achievement, and socioeconomic factors that affect the quality of state school systems.

Other than a shuffle at the top, the final grades reflect some perennial patterns. In the category of academic achievement alone, no state topped Massachusetts’ 88.4, and 44 states scored a C or lower. And top-ranking states are largely clustered in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, while Southern states with high poverty rates dominate the lower rankings.

The latest top-to-bottom grades show just how stubborn K-12 improvement challenges can be. But a deeper look at the data also shows bright spots even among some low-performing states, as well as a photo-finish for New Jersey, as it came in number one for the first time.

Keeping Score

The national score of 75.6 represents an increase of 0.5 points over last year, when the nation also earned a C on the summative report card. The slight uptick in the numerical score reflects modest gains in each of the three report card categories. But the result also continues a trend of mediocre performance, with large disparities between high- and low-scoring states.

New Jersey’s first-place position with a B-plus and a score of 87.8 ends Massachusetts’ four-year reign atop the Quality Counts rankings, in which Massachusetts also earned a B-plus. Massachusetts fell short of the top spot by just a few hundredths of a point on the combined scores.

Connecticut (83.6), Maryland (83.1), and New Hampshire (82.5) are next up, with the only B grades this year. New Mexico (66.4) is at the bottom of the rankings, with the only D. Six other states get marks of D-plus.

Overall, 32 states earn grades between C-plus and C-minus. Those results reflect the mix of strengths and weaknesses that most states display when evaluated on the comprehensive report card.

How the Ranking Works

The overall A-F letter grades on the report card reflect the average of numerical scores on a traditional 100-point scale for three custom indices developed by the research center:

The Chance for Success Index evaluates education-related opportunities throughout an individual’s lifetime from cradle to career.

The school finance analysis gauges spending on education and equity in the distribution of funding across districts within each state.

The K-12 Achievement Index grades states on current academic results, trends over time, and poverty-based gaps.

This year’s third installment of Quality Counts updates overall grades based on results from all three categories in the report card framework. To use the most current information available, the K-12 Achievement grades, which are determined largely by National Assessment of Educational Progress scores from 2017, have also been updated based on our most recent analysis of Advanced Placement test scores and the latest high school graduation rates. Grades for the Chance for Success and School Finance categories were published in the January and June installments, respectively.

Across the metrics, some key themes and trends emerge. Here are the research center’s five takeaways from the analysis.

Money Matters

School finance results allowed New Jersey to eclipse Massachusetts as the top-ranked state. Funding grades also separated some other leading states from their peers.

New Jersey ranks third in the nation for school finance with a score of 89.3 (B-plus) and outpaces Massachusetts, which ranks 11th at 83.4 (B). New Jersey has an advantage over Massachusetts in both spending and equity. It ranks sixth for per-pupil expenditures at $16,543, while Massachusetts is 13th at $14,529 once figures are adjusted for regional cost differences.

Ultimately, state policymakers determine how much of the funding pie gets allocated to education. New Jersey devotes 4.8 percent of its total taxable resources to education, ranking third nationally. By contrast, Massachusetts commits just 3.3 percent of state resources to K-12 schools and ranks 31st.

While Massachusetts excels in many areas of student achievement, it doesn’t lead the pack in the area of funding equity, ranking 41st in that category. Its wealth-neutrality score is 33rd in the nation, highlighting that wealthier districts in the state get more funding than their poorer peers and that the disparity is more significant than in most other states. In comparison, New Jersey places seventh on this measure.

Wyoming provides another example where funding grades have an impact in a state’s overall score. Its sixth-place finish in the Quality Counts rankings is driven largely by its success in school finance. It finishes first, nationally, in the funding category—far ahead of its geographic neighbors. In comparison, Montana stands in 27th place for finance and Idaho finishes last. Wyoming has been the top state for school finance over the past decade largely because it has been the most successful in balancing strong spending with equity across districts—it finishes first for spending and seventh for equity. No other state lands in the top 10 for both categories. At $18,090, its per-pupil spending (adjusted for regional cost differences) is third-highest in the nation.

Within the equity arena, it finishes third for its wealth-neutrality score, indicating that it spends nearly the same amount on its property-poor districts and their more affluent counterparts. It devotes 5.1 percent of its total taxable resources to K-12 schooling, the second-highest share in the nation. In fact, Wyoming posts a top 10 ranking on five of the report card’s eight finance indicators.

In stark contrast, one of Wyoming’s neighbors in the region, Idaho, has consistently received the lowest finance scores since 2008. It’s the only state to rank below 40th in both spending and equity.

Location Matters

Regional patterns continue to be clear-cut. Major differences in educational performance separate high-performing school systems in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions from lower-performing systems elsewhere in the nation. Where you grow up has an impact on the educational opportunities available to you.

Minnesota and Wyoming are the only states in the overall top 10 that aren’t located in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic regions. By contrast, all 10 of the lowest-ranked states are in the South, Southwest, or West.

Results on the Chance for Success Index illustrate the continuing regional disparities that exist on key economic and educational indicators. Five of the six states with the best Chance for Success scores are located in an East Coast corridor between New Hampshire and Virginia. These states often top the rankings for both academic outcomes and the underlying socioeconomic factors that can contribute to them. For instance, Massachusetts, which has the highest 4th grade reading and 8th grade math test scores, is also third in family income and fourth in parental education levels. Similarly, New Hampshire is third in both 4th grade reading and 8th grade math scores. It’s first in family income and third for parental education.

A snapshot of the lowest-scoring states on the grading map for Chance for Success would zero in on the South and Southwest, including Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico at the bottom of the grading scale. These states have poor test scores and fewer resources to support student success. Louisiana is last for 8th grade math test scores and 49th for family income. Nevada is on the lowest rung of the ladder for parental education and 42nd for 4th grade reading scores. Similarly, New Mexico has the lowest rank for family income and is last for 4th grade reading achievement.

But socioeconomic factors don’t entirely predict a state’s academic fortunes. Florida finishes 43rd for family income, but ninth for 4th grade reading achievement. Kentucky ranks 41st for family income and 39th for parent education, but stands 22nd in 4th grade reading.

The Best Get Better

Some top-tier states stand out because they continue to improve in certain areas despite already occupying a high place in the rankings.

These states typically have strong economies and well-educated populations serving as long-term advantages.

For instance, New Jersey, the top-ranked overall state in 2019, is 17th for improvement in its K-12 Achievement score from 2008 to 2019 with a solid gain of 4.5 points. Connecticut, ranked third overall in 2019, has the second-best improvement in K-12 Achievement over that span, an increase of 9.0 points. By contrast, 12 states declined by a point or more in K-12 Achievement during that period. Several traditionally high-performing states fell the most: Vermont (-5.0), North Dakota (-5.0), and Maryland (-4.6).

Look to the West

Four of the five states with the greatest improvements in their overall scores since last year are in the West.

Nevada (+1.8), the District of Columbia (+1.6), California (+1.5), Oregon (+1.1), and Washington (+1.0) saw the largest overall gains from 2018 to 2019. Nevada’s uptick moved it out of last place in the overall rankings for the first time since 2015. The increase in its high school graduation rate from 2014 to 2017 is the second-largest in the nation. It also made solid gains in adult educational attainment, parental education levels, and family income.

California improved its overall finance score the most since last year, gaining 3.3 points. Its gains were fueled by major increases in per-pupil spending and the percent of total taxable resources spent on education. The percent of students in districts with per-pupil expenditures at or above the U.S. average also increased from 23.8 percent in the 2018 analysis to 37.4 in this year’s report.

Silver Linings—or Not

Viewed over more than a decade, the nation’s overall performance hasn’t changed much, but there has been greater progress on some indicators than others.

The 2019 results can be compared with data from the 2008 report, the year that the three current Quality Counts indices were first established with their present scoring system. Over that period, the nation’s average score across those three categories has barely budged, increasing by just half a point.

A closer look at the data, however, reveals that outcomes on particular metrics making up those overall scores stand out for improvement, while results for others merely inched up or declined.

For instance, the percent of children with at least one parent holding a postsecondary credential increased by 7.5 points, and the percent of children with at least one parent who is steadily employed improved by 5.4.

But the percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool over the past decade only grew by 1.9 percentage points. And the share of total taxable resources spent on education declined from 3.6 to 3.3 percent.

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In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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