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Nation Gets a ‘C’ on Latest School Quality Report Card, While N.J. Again Boasts Top Grade

By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — September 01, 2021 8 min read
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As students and educators start a new school year amid continued uncertainties related to the coronavirus pandemic, the nation once again receives a C grade for the combined academic, finance, and socioeconomic factors that set the stage for a quality K-12 education for all children.

The overall score of 76.2 out of 100 possible points on this third installment of Education Week’s Quality Counts 2021 report card is up 0.3 points over last year—not enough to nudge the nation as a whole into a higher letter-grade category than last year’s.

For the third year in a row, New Jersey leads the nation. It posts an overall grade of B-plus and a score of 88.1. Massachusetts earns the only other B-plus (87.2). At the other end of the scale, New Mexico gets the nation’s lowest score at 66.7, a D-plus. Four other states — Alabama, Louisiana, Nevada, and Oklahoma — also receive grades of D-plus. In all, 32 states and the District of Columbia get grades between C-minus and C-plus.

Grading the States. New Jersey and Massachusetts earn the nation’s best overall scores on the “Quality Counts 2021” report card, with the only B-plus grades. New Mexico receives the nation’s lowest score and a D-plus. Four other states — Alabama, Louisiana, Nevada, and Oklahoma — also get D-plus grades. SOURCE: EdWeek Research Center, 2021

The overall grades also highlight the degree to which academic achievement—and the resources that support it—already differed across the states before the pandemic hit. The results underscore the dual challenges facing policymakers: the need to address long-standing gaps in opportunity even as they confront the more recent impact of the profound educational disruptions COVID-19 has produced.

The overall results for the nation and the states are based on the EdWeek Research Center’s analysis of data from 2018 to 2020 (the most recent available) and reflect mostly pre-pandemic performance on 39 distinct indicators in three graded categories: Chance for Success, K-12 Achievement, and School Finance. The overall scores are the average of scores in those three areas.

Detailed state-by-state data from the Chance-for-Success Index, capturing 13 cradle-to-career indicators of lifelong education-related opportunities, were published in January. The June finance installment of the report card catalogued findings on eight indicators of overall education spending and the extent to which that funding is equitably allocated across the districts within each state. The K-12 Achievement grades, based on 18 separate metrics, are updated in this September installment.

The Research Center identified five takeaways from this year’s findings.

Takeaway #1

The nation once again gets a lower score for student achievement than for categories examining the inputs and broader socioeconomic conditions that can be foundations for academic success.

The score of 73.0 (a C) on the K-12 Achievement Index reflects current student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math, along with high school graduation rates; trends in those metrics over time; and poverty-based disparities. Because assessments were postponed due to the pandemic, this year’s K-12 Achievement grades again reflect 2019 NAEP scores, but incorporate updated results on two other components of the index: Advanced Placement tests and high school graduation.

Massachusetts records the highest K-12 Achievement score at 84.8 (a B) but 17 states receive grades of D-plus or lower.

In the category of school finance, the nation earns a higher score of 76.1 (also a C). Its relatively strong marks on the four equity metrics in the analysis boost its standing. In fact, 22 states earn A or A-minus grades for equity, led by Maryland with a score of 93.9. By contrast, New Jersey posts the nation’s only A in the spending category, catapulting the state to the top overall spot for finance.

But roughly half the states receive failing grades for the report card’s four school spending indicators. And states’ level of commitment to education funding varies considerably. The percent of total taxable resources states spend on education reaches a high point of 5.4 percent in Vermont but falls to just 2.7 percent in North Carolina, the lowest in the nation. Those numbers illustrate a key finding: Although the resources that policymakers can draw on often depend on long-term financial forces beyond their full control, leaders in some states elect to make school funding a higher priority when deciding where to allocate the dollars available in their budgets.

The nation produces its highest grade (a B-minus, 79.5) on the Chance-for-Success Index, which is designed to measure opportunities for residents of each state during three key stages of their lifetimes. Of the 13 metrics, four assess early foundations, such as family income and parental education, that help young children to start school ready to learn. Six indicators make up the index’s school years category and gauge student participation and performance in formal education ranging from preschool to postsecondary. The adult outcomes portion of the index evaluates opportunities and outcomes in three areas: educational attainment, annual income, and steady employment.

The B-minus represents the nation’s best grade since the debut of the current Chance for Success scoring system in 2008. The nation’s ascent to this milestone is the product of slight gains each year since 2018 after some declines in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. National progress has been fueled by gains in the South. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee all boosted their scores by at least four points and made gains in parental education and employment levels, along with 4th grade reading and 8th grade math test scores since 2008.


Florida and Nevada counter the national pattern and are the only states to score better for student achievement than for both of the other graded categories this year.

Although, nationally, student achievement grades still trail behind marks for school finance and the educational environment, those states punch above their weight by posting academic performance scores that rise above their weaker results for school finance and socioeconomic factors that can impact learning.

Florida earns a B-minus for K-12 Achievement but a C-plus in the Chance for Success category, which incorporates socioeconomic factors, and a D-plus in School Finance. Its score for student achievement is 2.1 points higher than its Chance for Success result and 11.8 points higher than its finance score.

Similarly, Nevada’s student achievement score is 2.8 points higher than its Chance for Success total and outpaces its finance results by 10.6 points.

Takeaway #3

The report card analysis highlights broad-based disparities connected to poverty.

Most states have room to improve the fairness of their school funding systems by investing more in high-poverty districts. Students in such districts often have the greatest need for educational resources. But Alaska is the only state providing higher funding to property-poor districts than to more-affluent school systems, according to the wealth-neutrality scores reported in the school finance analysis.

Students from wealthier families score substantially higher on NAEP reading and math tests than their lower-income peers. For example, more-affluent 4th graders, nationally, scored 27.8 scale-score points higher than less-advantaged students on reading assessments in 2019. The gap closed by more than four points in only four states between 2003 and 2019: Illinois (-6.9), Mississippi (-5.4), Nevada (-4.8), and Florida (-4.4). The disparities grew most in Oregon (+11.1) and the District of Columbia (+17.2).

Chart. States with Top-Ranked (New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York), and Bottom-Ranked (Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico) in state rankings according to EdWeek Research Center 2021.

Takeaway #4

Consistent results across and within graded categories tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Instead, state performance is often characterized by peaks and valleys.

Results on the Chance-for-Success Index illustrate the uneven results as 42 states earn a top 10 ranking for at least one of the index’s 13 distinct metrics, and 35 also land in the bottom 10 for at least one of those indicators. Six different states rank first in the nation on at least one indicator. Nine states finish last on an indicator.

New Jersey’s top overall ranking reflects the fact that, unlike many of its counterparts, it produces strong results on all three graded indices and combines a socioeconomic environment supporting educational success with strong school funding and solid student achievement.

With an A-minus and the nation’s highest score in school finance (91.2), the state ranks fifth for per-pupil spending once dollar amounts are adjusted for regional cost differences and second for the share of total taxable resources it allocates to education spending. It also finishes second in the nation in both Chance for Success and K-12 Achievement, trailing only Massachusetts in those categories.

Despite its strong history of student achievement, it hasn’t rested on its laurels. It ranks second in the nation when current test scores and are evaluated, and also finishes third for improvements over time, bolstered by the fourth-highest NAEP scale-score gains in 8th grade math since 2003.

Takeaway #5

A handful of states moved the needle with an uptick in scores since last year, but others have moved in the opposite direction.

Kentucky (+1.7), Washington (+1.1), the District of Columbia (+1.0), and Georgia (+1.0) all improved their overall scores by one point or more from the 2020 report to 2021.

Kentucky boosted its school finance score more than any other state over last year, seeing an increase of 5.4 points. The gains are driven by an increase in the percent of students in districts with per-pupil expenditures at or above the U.S. average, which ballooned from 1.2 percent in the 2020 analysis to 23.9 percent in this year’s report. Washington and Georgia also owe some of their gains to funding improvements, increasing their finance scores by 3.9 and 2.8 points, respectively. The District of Columbia made gains in family income, parental education and employment, and Advanced Placement test scores.

North Dakota (-1.2), Louisiana (-1.2), and Wyoming (-1.1) saw their overall report card scores fall by more than a point. School finance also played a role in their year-to-year trajectories. Louisiana recorded the nation’s largest decline in finance, slipping by 3.9 points. It dropped in funding equity with a widening gap between its highest- and lowest-spending districts. Wyoming’s finance score dropped by 3.1 points and North Dakota lost 2.7 points in that category.

The results on the report card, along with the findings about the pandemic’s impact from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey featured elsewhere in this Quality Counts report, illustrate that the states and geographic locations where students live continue to have a strong influence on their educational opportunities

Chart. States with Most-Improved (Kentucky, Washington, District of Columbia, Georgia, New Hampshire), and Largest Declines (North Dakota, Louisiana, Wyoming, Vermont, Pennsylvania) in state rankings according to EdWeek Research Center 2021.

Xinchun Chen, Intern and Natalie Gubbay, Intern contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Nation Gets a ‘C’ on Latest School Quality Report Card, While N.J. Again Boasts Top Grade


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