Special Report
States

Nation’s Schools Get a ‘C’ Once Again, Even as Pandemic Turns Up the Heat

By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — September 01, 2020 7 min read
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As the nation’s K-12 schools struggle to open amid COVID-19’s disruption, the challenges that confronted them before the pandemic—weak academic achievement, big gaps between high- and low-performing states, and room for improvement all around—remain front and center.

That’s the composite picture painted by Quality Counts 2020’s final grading of the nation and the states based largely on the most recent federal and state data, which gives the U.S. a grade of C on a range of academic, school finance, and long-term socioeconomic indicators.

The underlying data—which captures conditions from 2017 to 2019 on a 50-state basis—translates into a national score of 75.9 out of 100 possible points, an increase of 0.3 points from last year. While it’s not a grade that’s likely to prompt a confetti-filled celebration, it does reflect modest gains over 2019 results in cradle-to-career opportunities and school finance.

For the second consecutive year, New Jersey earns the top overall ranking with a B-plus grade and a score of 87.3. Massachusetts posts the only other B-plus grade at 86.7. By contrast, New Mexico receives the nation’s lowest score of 66.5 and a D-plus. Three other states—Alabama, Nevada, and Oklahoma—also get D-plus grades.

This report provides overall grades and scores based on 39 indicators in three broad categories developed by the EdWeek Research Center: Chance for Success, School Finance, and K-12 Achievement.

The United States earns its highest grade (a C-plus, 79.2) on the Chance-for-Success Index, which evaluates opportunities for children to get off to a good start in early childhood, move successfully through pre-K-12 schooling, and ultimately achieve positive educational and career outcomes in adulthood. It posts a C (75.6) on the school finance analysis grading states on spending and equity in the distribution of funding across districts.

The nation receives its lowest score (72.8) and a C-grade on the K-12 Achievement Index, which gauges current performance, trends over time, and poverty-based gaps. The comprehensive report card reveals an array of strengths and weaknesses with substantial disparities between the highest- and lowest-performing states.

The overall results featured in this installment are the average of the scores for the three categories in the report card framework. The state-by-state results for the Chance-for-Success Index were published in January and School Finance scores were released in June. The K-12 Achievement grades are newly updated for this September installment based largely on 2019 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The research center identified four key takeaways from this year’s analysis:

Even the top performers have substantial room for improvement.

No state earns an overall grade of A. The top-scorers—New Jersey and Massachusetts—garner less than 90 points and are about 13 points short of a perfect 100. States that are relatively strong in many respects can still use the report card to target specific areas that need work.

The pattern of indicator-by-indicator variability in performance holds true for all three of the major report categories. Results for the Chance-for-Success Index illustrate the need for even top states to aim higher. Massachusetts gets the nation’s highest grade with an A-minus, but it still finishes 45th for steady employment and 42nd for linguistic integration, defined as the percent of dependent children whose parents are fluent English speakers.

The national Chance for Success leaders generally have a soft spot in at least one broad component of the index. New Jersey finishes second for indicators measuring student achievement in the K-12 years and fifth for success in adulthood but 17th on metrics gauging the degree to which children are prepared to start school. Similarly, Vermont, second for preparation in the early-childhood stage and fourth in K-12 performance, drops to 13th for adult outcomes. No state makes it into the top five for all of the cradle-to-career stages.

When scores are averaged across the report card categories, states landing in the top 10 still fall near the very bottom on at least one of the report card’s specific indicators. For instance, New Jersey stands at 47th for the percent of dependent children whose parents are fluent English-speakers. Wyoming (5th overall) is 47th in postsecondary participation.

New York finishes eighth overall but ranks 43rd for parental employment. Vermont (6th overall) is 47th for kindergarten enrollment and 48th for school funding equity as measured by the per-pupil spending gap between its highest- and lowest-spending districts ($12,865).

New Jersey retains its crown as the top-ranked state largely due to its continued strength in school finance.

The Garden State expanded its razor-thin margin over Massachusetts, its nearest rival in the overall rankings, from a few hundredths of a point in 2019 to nearly a whole point this year. It maintained its 5.9-point advantage in school finance and cut into the Bay State’s lead in the two other graded categories. In 2019, it trailed Massachusetts by 2.4 points in Chance for Success and by 3.4 points in K-12 Achievement but now falls behind by 2.1 and 2.0 points, respectively.

New Jersey ranks second, nationally, for school finance while Massachusetts is in 10th place. Although New Jersey finishes in the bottom tier for finance equity (31st), it is a pacesetter in the spending category where it trails only perennial standout, Wyoming. It ranks sixth for per-pupil expenditures at $17,707 once figures are adjusted for regional cost differences and 99.9 percent of its students are in districts spending at or above the U.S. average.

These results are anchored by the state’s commitment to education funding. It devotes 5.1 percent of its total taxable resources to education, the third-highest share in the nation.

Large disparities between the overall scores of the highest- and lowest-performers continue.

Nearly 21 points separate the performance of New Jersey at the top of the scorecard from New Mexico at the bottom. Similar gaps define their widely differing results on each of the graded categories. New Jersey outpaces New Mexico by 21.9 points in Chance for Success, 19.1 points in School Finance, and 21.3 points in K-12 Achievement. New Jersey lands in the top 10 on 24 of 39 report card indicators. At the other end of the scale, New Mexico is in the bottom 10 for 22 of the metrics.

Some states have made encouraging progress over time while others have declined more than their peers.

The District of Columbia, Mississippi, and Louisiana all saw their overall scores improve by two points or more from 2019 to 2020. The District of Columbia gained the most with a jump of 2.8 points. Its Chance for Success and K-12 Achievement scores improved by 3.0 points and 2.6 points, respectively. The District’s gains were fueled by solid improvements in family income, parental education, 4th grade reading and 8th grade math test scores, and high school graduation rates.

Mississippi made strides on the Chance-for-Success Index, adding 1.3 points to its score since last year largely due to improvements in parental education, 4th grade reading, and 8th grade math.

Mississippi also made the most progress in the nation on the K-12 Achievement Index from 2019 to 2020. Its score jumped by 5.2 points during that time propelled by increases in the percentage of 4th grade students proficient in math and reading on NAEP.

In some cases, 2019 to 2020 improvements bolster a trajectory that has been trending upward over more than a decade. Viewed from a longer-term perspective, the District of Columbia has seen the largest advances in the nation on the Chance-for-Success Index if 2020 results are measured against marks from 2008, the first year the index used its current scoring system. As its score jumped by 9.3 points, catapulting its letter grade from a C to a B, the District’s ranking surged from 33rd to seventh.

Like the District of Columbia, Mississippi’s gains contribute to a long-term climb up the mountain. Its Chance for Success grade was a D-plus in 2008. By 2020, it had improved to a C, with a gain of 6.2 points.

While some individual states made advances of two points or more in their overall scores, the nation saw increases of just 0.2 points in Chance for Success and 0.7 points in School Finance. Its score dropped by 0.2 points in K-12 Achievement.

Most states (34) receive overall grades between C-plus and C-minus, illustrating the complexity and difficulty of maintaining excellence across a diverse range of indicators.

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2020 edition of Education Week as Nation’s Schools Receive a ‘C’ as Pandemic Turns Up the Heat

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